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Dr. Jack Kevorkian dies at 83; 'Dr. Death' was advocate, practitioner of physician-assisted suicide

Former Michigan pathologist Dr. Jack Kevorkian claimed to have assisted in the suicides of more than 130 terminally ill people between 1990 and 1998. He served eight years in prison for second-degree murder after he administered a lethal injection himself.

June 04, 2011|By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times
  • Dr. Jack Kevorkian poses with his "suicide machine," built of scrap parts, which delivered a fatal dose intravenously.
Dr. Jack Kevorkian poses with his "suicide machine," built… (Associated Press )

He was known as Dr. Death, a Michigan physician who helped his patients kill themselves.

In doing so, Jack Kevorkian inflamed a nationwide debate in the 1990s over a terminally ill patient's right to die. And he served eight years in prison for second-degree murder for administering the lethal injection rather than helping the patient do it himself.

Kevorkian began his crusade mindful of his own mortality.

"You don't know what will happen when you get older," he said in a 1998 interview with "60 Minutes." "I may end up terribly suffering. I want some colleague to be free to come and help me when I say the time has come. That's why I'm fighting, for me. And if it helps everybody else, so be it."

In the end, Kevorkian's own death early Friday came pain-free and peacefully in a hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. He was 83.

Kevorkian had been hospitalized for pneumonia and kidney problems last month for four days and returned about a week later. He developed pulmonary thrombosis late Thursday, said Mayer Morganroth, Kevorkian's lawyer and friend.

During Kevorkian's final hours in the intensive care unit, the music of his favorite composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, was played over a computer.

"We did it because we knew it would make him happy," Morganroth said.

Kevorkian said he assisted in the suicides of more than 130 people from 1990 to 1998.

From the beginning, his actions thrust the right-to-die issue into the national spotlight, with Kevorkian at the center of what Time magazine called "a media barrage that ricocheted from 'Crossfire' to 'Nightline,' 'Good Morning America' to 'Geraldo.' "

"I'm trying to knock the medical profession into accepting its responsibilities, and those responsibilities include assisting their patients with death," Kevorkian told reporters at the time.

Derek Humphry, executive director of the Hemlock Society, a right-to-die group that supports the concept of doctor-assisted suicide, told The Times in 1990: "If we are free people at all, then we must be free to choose the manner of our death."

Critics challenging Kevorkian on moral and procedural grounds were equally vocal.

"What he did is like veterinary medicine," Dr. John Finn, medical director of the Hospice of Southeastern Michigan in suburban Detroit, told The Times in 1990. "When you take your pet to the vet, he puts the pet to sleep. I think human beings are more complicated than that. I think he should have his license revoked."

Dr. Melvin Kirschner, co-chairman of the joint committee on medical ethics of the Los Angeles County Medical Assn. and the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., complained in a 1990 Times interview: "Kevorkian did this without any guidelines whatsoever. Physicians cannot just, willy-nilly, assist someone in killing themselves."

In 1997, Oregon became the first state to implement a law that allowed mentally competent, terminally ill patients to request lethal medications from their physicians; Washington and Montana have followed suit.

Janet Adkins, a 54-year-old Portland, Ore., mother of three adult sons in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease and unwilling to let it progress further, was the first of Kevorkian's assisted suicides.

When Adkins and her husband, Ronald, met with Kevorkian in Michigan, he already had begun receiving media attention for his untested "suicide machine," a homemade device he called the "mercitron."

On June 4, 1990, as Ronald Adkins waited in a motel room, Kevorkian's sisters, Flora Holzheimer and Margo Janus, drove Janet Adkins to Groveland Oaks County Park, where Kevorkian was waiting for her in his rusty white 1968 Volkswagen van.

He had tried to find a more suitable setting, he told People magazine later that month, "and every place turned me down. But Janet didn't care what the environment was."

With Adkins in a bed in the back of the van, Kevorkian connected her to a heart monitor and inserted a needle into her arm to start the flow of a harmless saline solution.

As chronicled in People, Adkins asked Holzheimer to read passages Adkins had brought with her, including the 23rd Psalm and a message from her closest friend.

Then Adkins pressed the button on Kevorkian's machine, which began sending anesthetic thiopental sodium through her veins to put her to sleep and then potassium chloride to stop her heart.

"Thank you, thank you so much," Adkins reportedly told Kevorkian as the anesthetic began taking effect.

"Have a nice trip," he said.

After the line on the heart monitor went flat less than six minutes later, Kevorkian called the authorities and told them what he had done.

A few days after his wife's death, Ronald Adkins said he believed assisted suicide was a more dignified way to die.

"It's not a matter of how long you live, but the quality of life you live, and it was her life and her decision, and she chose this way to go," he was quoted as telling his local TV station.

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