Jack Kevorkian’s death has stirred much emotion in me. Millions of individuals around the world believe he was a champion for compassion, intelligence, and humanity. Millions more believe he was the opposite. I think he was a champion and here is why:
My father died of brain cancer late last year. He had spent most of his life helping others, yet suffered needlessly before he died. His brain tumor, a glioblastoma, had been treated with chemotherapy and radiation until its progress had slowed. Being an incurable malady, the result was a suffering prolonged.
One would imagine acknowledging the reality of dying is a sign of a mature society. When we had no control of sickness or death such decisions never needed to be made. Yet when we learned to extend life we inconceivably used it greedily, never applying rational countermeasures and limits on such powers or thinking through the wisdom of indefinite treatment. Science’s regular confrontation with ancient mythology has created a system of suffering and cruelty. Politicians and religious figures defend this practice by referencing fictional horror stories of abuse and in the name of faith remain unwilling to think. Abuse would have to be managed. And thought is surely a gift from god, so why fail at such an important task?
When my father was capable of thinking more clearly he had requested of me to let him die when all hope had been lost. He was exhausted from the daily difficulties brought on by the tumor and tired of the loneliness that comes with debilitating disease. I never told him that there had never been much hope because it would have been harder for him to accept the unending medical treatment that he had no choice but to undergo. While our family hoped for the best, his death was the only certainty, and yet his request could not be acted upon and so in the end all I did was lie to him about hope.
Gary Carter, the Hall of Fame baseball player, revealed he has a glioblastoma. He will take the chemotherapies Temodar and Avastin, he will take steroids to reduce brain swelling that will also atrophy his legs, he will undergo radiation, he will do the things that humans have done with cancer for nearly a century. However, unlike so many of the challenges Gary Carter has met in his career, he will not win this one.
My father did not win, Ted Kennedy did not win, my upstairs neighbor did not win, my friend’s father did not win, and Gary Carter has no chance either. This “rare” brain disease is becoming common. Not only will humanity need to acknowledge environmental factors as cause for its increasing prevalence, humanity will need to accept that death by cancer and other terminal diseases must be met rationally with maturity and compassion.
The day before my father went into hospice a doctor at the hospital, who had also lost his father to cancer, confided in me that the worst mistake he made was making his father go through chemotherapy. Dying without suffering, with dignity, is an intelligent and compassionate option and should not only be a privilege for pets.
Had there been options, I would have spoken to a doctor or counselor to consider fulfilling my father’s request to die before the suffering. My father would have been able to make peace with me and say goodbye to his friends, instead of staring at us frustrated, his eyes showing complex thoughts but his mouth unable to formulate words. When he could still articulate his thoughts, my father made the decision to die and he made that request rationally, but I had to ignore it. Under our system, I watched a harmless man suffer needlessly and I facilitated that as his powerless health advocate.
I am sorry, Gary, for the journey you are about to take. And thank you, Jack, for having the guts to show us there is a better way to respect our dying. You’ll both be missed and I hope your legacies will make a difference in bettering humanity.