Saturday, June 4, 2011


The bidding for Jack Kevorkian’s ’68 VW van was up to $3,400 last year when eBay pulled the plug on an episode of morbid capitalism timed to coincide with HBO’s Kevorkian movie.

Thirty years earlier, in that reconstructed van, Kevorkian had assisted in the suicide of the first of his approximately 130 ... patients? victims?

Which were they, patients or victims? In life, or as portrayed by Al Pacino on HBO, was Kevorkian closer to Marcus Welby or Hannibal Lecter? He became known as Doctor Death, but he was also Death’s Rorschach.

Even as a subject for thoughtful consideration, we put off death as long as possible. Kevorkian, who died on Friday at age 83, made it unavoidable, and even people who considered his actions those of a murderer would concede that fact.

“His critics were as impassioned as his supporters,” Keith Schneider wrote in today’s New York Times, “but all generally agreed that his stubborn and often intemperate advocacy of assisted suicide helped spur the growth of hospice care in the United States and made many doctors more sympathetic to those in severe pain and more willing to prescribe medication to relieve it.”

Kevorkian’s van was equipped with the Thanatron and later the Mercitron, his homemade “death” and “mercy” machines. Kevorkian stopped using the Thanatron when he lost his medical license and could no longer prescribe the necessary ingredients. He served eight years in prison for the last of his assisted suicides, judged to be second-degree murder.

Nicholas Jackson began writing about Kevorkian in high school, and described his infamous work in The Atlantic (

“Kevorkian outfitted the patient with an intravenous drip of a saline solution. When the patient pressed a button, the saline would switch to thiopental for sixty seconds. After that strong dose of thiopental, the patient would slip into a deep coma, at which point the Thanatron would inject a lethal dose of potassium chloride, a solution that stops the heart. Potassium chloride, a mix of potassium and chlorine, is the same solution that is delivered in the final step of most lethal injection procedures.

“The key component of Kevorkian's Mercitron (“mercy machine"), which was used far more often than the Thanatron, was not potassium chloride, but carbon monoxide. A deadly gas, the carbon monoxide was stored in a cylinder in the back of the van and connected to a mask that Kevorkian would fit over his patients' nose and mouth.

“Because he always required patients to make the final move, Kevorkian built a makeshift handle. Attached to the valve of the carbon monoxide canister, even the most disabled of Kevorkian's patients was able to turn the handle and release the gas.

“But carbon monoxide can take a little while to finish the job. Sometimes as many as ten minutes were required. Kevorkian, though, would often encourage his patients to ingest muscle relaxants or sedatives before the procedure so that they would stay calm while taking their last gasps of air. He never wanted them to experience any pain. As a doctor, he cared.”

1 comment:

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