Vermont man has unique view on end-of-life debate

Posted April 17, 2011, at 9:52 p.m.

MONTPELIER, Vt. — As Vermont weighs a bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide, a man with unique perspective sits on the sidelines, rooting for its passage but not getting involved.

Terrence Youk, 56, is the brother of a Michigan man whose 1998 euthanasia death at the hands of Dr. Jack Kevorkian ultimately sent Kevorkian to prison.

Youk, who thinks Kevorkian was providing a service, not committing a crime, is squarely in the corner of a “death with dignity” bill before the Legislature. He says people should have the option.

“My belief, having gone through what I went through with my brother, is that people should have a choice at the end of life if they’re terminally ill. If they are in abject misery or they’ve just come to a place where they’ve lost meaning, they should have a choice to be able to slip away peacefully,” he said.

Opponents see it another way: That doctors should be preserving life, not ending it, and that advances in palliative care have improved quality of life for people with people with terminal diagnoses.

Thomas Youk, 52, of the Detroit suburb of Waterford Township was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease and could only move the fingers on his right hand. He asked Kevorkian to end his life.

On Sept. 17, 1998, Kevorkian administered a lethal injection of Seconal, potassium chloride and a muscle relaxant to Thomas Youk and videotaped the process. That led to Kevorkian’s conviction for second-degree murder. He served more than eight years before being released in 2007.

“My brother was at the end of his life, within certainly weeks of passing away,” said Terrence Youk, a documentary filmmaker who owns the Savoy Theater in Montpelier. “He was in abject terror. He was waking up in the middle of the night choking [on his own saliva], with no way of being able to alert anybody. He couldn’t really speak. He couldn’t move anything but a couple of fingers. That’s a very terrifying thing.”

The Vermont bill does not contemplate euthanasia but physician-assisted suicide. It would let doctors prescribe a lethal dose of pills for patients deemed mentally competent and who had been diagnosed with less than six months to live. The patient would then administer the drugs to himself or herself.

Under the bill:

• The person would have to make two separate oral requests and a written request. The written request would have to be signed and dated by the person and witnessed by at least two others 18 or older who “sign and affirm that the principal appeared to understand the nature of the document and to be free from duress or undue influence.”

• A consulting physician would have to examine the person, confirm the attending physician’s diagnosis and verify that the person has the capacity to make the choice and is acting voluntarily.

• If a mental defect is suspected by physicians, the person would be referred for counseling and no drugs prescribed unless the counselor determined that no mental disorder or disease — including depression — had impaired the person’s judgment.

Opponents, who call the process assisted suicide, say it gives government life-and-death power and could put society on a road to euthanasia.

Supporters, who call it “death with dignity,” say the ability of people to end their own lives should be a right. Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin supports the measure.

Three other states permit physician-assisted suicide: Oregon and Washington passed laws and Montana’s highest court ruled in 2009 that nothing in that state’s law bars patients from seeking it.

Youk, who has not participated in lobbying efforts for the Vermont bill, says he has made himself available to testify before lawmakers, but no one has taken him up on it. He was interviewed for this article after being approached by The Associated Press.

Among those opposing the Vermont bill is Lynne Caulfield, of Dummerston, whose late husband got an erroneous diagnosis and lived longer than doctors expected.

Caulfield, a 56-year-old registered nurse, lost husband Jack to cancer in 2006.

He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2002  and given six months to live, Caulfield said. The following year, he was told the cancer had metastasized to other parts of his body.

That diagnosis turned out to be mistaken. He ended up living for more than three years after the initial diagnosis.

The couple, who have five children, never would’ve considered ending Jack Caulfield’s life, even if it were legal, his wife said.

Still, Caulfield — who is on the executive committee of the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare — says that people in circumstances like her husband’s might.

“People in desperate situations who are feeling down about their lives and discouraged might find a lethal dose an appealing choice to them. With a misdiagnosis, people don’t really know how much time they have to live. If they took this lethal dose prematurely, they’d be missing out on more days of life they have on this earth,” she said.

 

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