Dr. Kevorkian was the Question, not the Answer

When my maternal grandmother developed Alzheimer’s disease I watched her suffer under the care of a medical system that prescribed powerful drugs liberally and incorrectly. I watched as her moods, her health, stability and mind fluctuated and seemed to melt away. She was medicated to the point of uncontrollable physical illness and exhaustion. It was not until she entered hospice care that she was relieved of her pain, attended to with compassion and was able to pass away peacefully.

When my paternal grandmother developed Alzheimer’s disease I watched her fade into herself and become more child-like every day. She stopped speaking and could not recognize me. She forgot her children and her life. Now, in hospice care, she does not struggle to remember or try to find the words. We can visit without hurting for the lifetime of memories that she does not have because at least she is calm and at rest.

I am a supporter of hospice and palliative care because it is real to me and it is right. I knew who Dr. Kevorkian was long before I had heard of hospice. I knew that he was a sensationalist, a zealot and a criminal, and I didn’t think he was wrong.

He helped people who were in chronic and disabling pain end their lives and their suffering. It was Dr. Kevorkian who first made me think, what would I do if I could no longer stand to be alive because of an illness? I would not go to a hospital to be put through torturous “healing” just to keep my heart and lungs pumping. I would not commit suicide. But, I would not want to call on “Dr. Death” and his machine either. So, what options are there? What rights do we have at the end of our lives?

It seems that Dr. Kevorkian brought the conversation about appropriate care for the terminally ill and dying to the table for a lot of people. He reminded me that appropriate care for the terminally ill, in most cases, means relief from suffering.

I do not think, however, he was the poster child for end-of-life care. Hospice care existed before Kevorkian, and the Medicare Hospice Benefit existed for eight years before Kevorkian’s first publicity stunt, when he aired a video of his assisting in the death of a patient in 1990.

Dr. Death put on a show and pointed the national spotlight on the rights of the terminally ill. His legacy is in his passion and very public activism. He made us think about how we would like our loved ones, our parents, ourselves and our children to be cared for in the most painful of circumstances. He did not put end-of-life care on the map. But, he led many of us to think about it.

In the end, Kevorkian’s presence – his life and his death – did not directly benefit my grandmothers’ suffering. His work did not influence my family’s decisions in choosing a hospice program or when meeting with the nurses who cared for my grandmothers. To me, Kevorkian did and still does represent a question. That question could be, what are my rights? It could be, what choice do I have? Or, is there relief?

Those questions that he represents have an answer. The answer is available and accessible and is a movement that has come out of compassion, volunteerism and the freedom to choose. For my grandmothers, for my mom and dad, and for my children, the answer has and will be hospice. For me, the answer to all of those questions is hospice. And to me, hospice is right.

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