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Diane Dimond: ‘Dr. Death’ Jack Kevorkian Made Us Rethink Everyone’s ‘Right to Die’

Late pathologist sparked important national and family dialogues about life and death

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t remember holding my stricken mother’s hand as she laid on a special hospital bed we had set up in her living room. It was there she took her last breath. Almost every day, I think about how my father died in the bedroom of the home he loved so much. Both my parents passed away exactly how they lived — on their own terms.

They wanted no heroic measures to prolong their lives, and they adamantly told me — their only child — that they did not want to die in a cold, impersonal hospital room. They made me promise to abide by their wishes. And just in case, they signed a living will putting it all in writing.

I thank Dr. Jack Kevorkian for that. He started the national dialogue about death that opened up the topic for discussion in my household.

I never met the man and, yes, I know he was a convicted felon who served several years in prison for murder after he administered a lethal cocktail to a suffering man. But he changed the course of my life and the way I look at death. The intense debate he sparked most likely touched a multitude of people who probably had never stopped to consider how they would die — and on what terms — until Kevorkian’s quest became known to the general public.

When Kevorkian started down the path that ultimately earned him the nickname “Dr. Death,” it was the early 1980s. He wrote a series of articles on the ethics of euthanasia for a German journal called Medicine and Law. In 1987, he hung out a shingle in Michigan as a physician available for consultation on “death counseling.” His first publicly revealed assisted suicide occurred in 1990, when the retired pathologist helped an Alzheimer’s patient take her life. She, like many other of his patients, was not terminal. But she was suffering, and for Kevorkian that was enough.

“What difference does it make if someone is terminal?” he once asked during an interview with CNN. “We are all terminal.” Truer words were never spoken.

Kevorkian, the son of Armenian immigrants, believed every person held the ultimate decision-making power over his or her own life — and death should be a dignified event. Yet his legacy is likely to be focused only on his stand on physician-assisted suicide. Once asked what it felt like to take someone’s life, Kevorkian said: “I didn’t do it to end a life. I did it to end the suffering the patient’s going through. The patient’s obviously suffering — what’s a doctor supposed to do, turn his back?”

Three states — Montana, Oregon and Washington — agree with the controversial Kevorkian’s stand and have passed laws allowing physician-assisted suicides.

Kevorkian wasn’t perfect in his judgment as he assisted more than 130 people to end their lives — but I’m not one who believes he had self-aggrandizement in mind. Like my parents, Kevorkian believed a mentally competent patient should always be in charge of his or her fate. The justice system may have branded him a criminal, but it is clear he single-handedly made generations of both young and older Americans think about their final moment.

When Kevorkian began to publicly preach about “the right to die” in Michigan in the early 1990s, my parents in Albuquerque became disciples. Both Mom and Dad were the type who didn’t use 20 words if 10 would do. They sat me down and bluntly told me they believed they — alone — should be in charge of their own lives right up until the moment of their deaths. They showed me their living will and made me promise.

My parents never faltered in their resolve, not even after Kevorkian had his medical license pulled by the state of Michigan or after he was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison on second-degree murder charges in 1999. Kevorkian’s book, Prescription: Medicide, The Goodness of Planned Death, was in my father’s library. Included within was Kevorkian’s idea that executed prisoners should be put to death in a certain way so as to preserve their organs for donation to others. You see, he wasn’t all about death.

By the time Kevorkian was released from prison on parole in June 2007 on his promise that he would never assist in another suicide, both my parents were gone. But their life and death lesson remains indelibly etched in my soul. Because I watched them depart this Earth marching to the drummer of their own choosing, I find I don’t fear death like I used to. I’m now able to look at it as a next adventure.

It’s ironic to think that at the end of his life Kevorkian did not choose the course toward death that he’d preached to so many. He died in a hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., after a month-long battle with kidney problems and pneumonia. He was 83. He never married and had no children. His life became all about the death of others.

Diane Dimond is the author of Cirque Du Salahi: Be Careful Who You Trust. Click here for more information. She can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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