Victor Skirmants supports the decision of his friend, Thomas Youk, to die at the hands of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Yet one thing still troubles him: “He had to die alone … he had to die all alone.”
Dr. Walter Hunter disagrees.
Hunter, medical director of Hospice of Michigan, said Youk, the man whose assisted death Kevorkian chose to flaunt before millions of television viewers (see front page story), “didn't have to die that way.” There was a great deal hospice could have done for him, Hunter added.
Skirmants said he didn't believe hospice had been involved in Youk's case. “I don't see how hospice could have helped him any,” said Skirmants. “He didn't have any control to do anything at the end. His wife, Melody, took care of him and was very devoted to him. I don't see how any hospice could have done any better.” Melody Youk was not permitted to be with her husband at the moment of death, for fear of being implicated as an accomplice.
Hunter said his staff would have attempted to get at the root of the patients' fears, their concerns, and tell them what can be done and the types of treatment available. “I do not believe that any patient with this condition need have active euthanasia performed,” he said.
Hospice care is made up of physicians, nurses, social workers, and volunteers who provide pain and symptom management for the patient and information for the patient and the care-givers. “Patients facing the end of life should be enrolled in hospice care programs,” said Hunter. “Yet less than 20% of dying patients in this country annually are served by hospice care programs.”
With the medications and new equipment now available, Hunter said that he could guarantee even a patient with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — the so-called Lou Gehrig's disease that Youk suffered from — could be made comfortable at the end of life. And hospice workers will come to the home, assisted-care facility, or even the hospital to provide services. After the patient dies, a 13-month post-death bereavement program is available to family members.
Most pro-lifers believe more needs to be done to educate the public concerning the sanctity of life and the availability of palliative (comfort) care at the end of life. Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae made those points clear.
“I think that is very well outlined in Evangelium Vitae,” said Dr. Ljubisa Dragovic, the Oakland County medical examiner involved in most of the autopsies on Kevorkian's victims. Dragovic, who is Eastern Orthodox, continued, “And for me, a non-Roman Catholic, viewing that is something that is closest to medicine. I think there are some very, very basic things addressed there, particularly in this business of care. Care is a major function of medicine, not just cure but care.
“A lot of professional people have forgotten that. I think the Pope's encyclical is something that every physician, regardless of their religious denomination or philosophical belief, should read.”
Youk himself was, according to his own dying words, Catholic. Both he and Skirmants were raised Catholic, but were not practicing their faith, according to Skirmants.
The Nov. 19 release of a 26-page letter from the U.S bishops, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, exhorted all 60 million U.S. Catholics, especially those in leadership roles, parents, politicians, and clergy, to uphold the culture of life and combat the culture of death.
“Abortion and euthanasia have become pre-eminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others,” the document stated.
Adam Cardinal Maida of the Archdiocese of Detroit, was one of the writers of the letter that was approved by a vote of 217 to 30. Ned McGrath, communications director for the archdiocese, said the cardinal was very pleased with the document. Riding on the wave of success with the defeat of Proposal B which was due, in large part, to the full-scale move to educate the state's Catholics on the dangers of the proposal, Cardinal Maida plans to continue the education in an ongoing process.
“It is a time to stand up and say here is where we are and here is what we teach,” said McGrath. “That is what Cardinal Maida will do as a teacher. As Catholics we need to look to the Gospel of Life, not the culture of death.”
(Al Kresta contributed the interview segments of Dr. Walter Hunter to this report from Al Kresta Live, WDEO/WCAR, Ann Arbor/Detroit.) Diane Hanson writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.