Baltimore doctor helps the ill commit suicide

Dr. Lawrence Egbert has been dubbed "The New Doctor Death"

May 21, 2011|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

From a cluttered Baltimore apartment office, Dr. Lawrence Egbert says he has helped direct the deaths of nearly 300 people across the country.

Some of his patients, as he calls them, are racked with cancer, paralyzed or staring down Alzheimer's. Others simply want to slip away on their own terms. Sometimes family members gather around the bedside to say goodbye; in other cases, their appointed "exit guides" lock the door behind them and make arrangements for someone to stumble across the body.

A decade after Jack Kevorkian went to prison for helping a man with Lou Gehrig's disease commit suicide, Egbert, 83, has been dubbed "The New Doctor Death" by Newsweek after being criminally charged in two states for his role as medical director for the Final Exit Network. An Arizona jury acquitted him last month following a three-week trial in the death of a Phoenix woman. He has also been charged in Georgia.

The cases have revived the debate over assisted suicide and placed Egbert, a retired anesthesiologist, at the forefront of the debate over Americans' right to take their own lives. The Final Exit Network is the only known group performing such work, and members say their assistance is compassionate and progressive. Prosecutors call them "killers." Even other right-to-die advocates, including Kevorkian himself, disagree with their methods.

Amid the controversy, Egbert has been dismissed from his role teaching classes at the Johns Hopkins University and has had a falling-out with his church. After snapping his pelvis in a bicycle accident, he even contemplated taking his own life. But should he prevail in his pending case in Georgia, Egbert said, he'll resume his work with the Final Exit Network.

"I never thought of myself as having done anything that I should feel guilty of," said the Hampden resident. "I don't feel any conflict about helping someone stop suffering."

'Hasten death'

Jana Van Voorhis was descending into madness, relatives say. Born into a wealthy family, she had a bubbly personality. But she'd also battled mental illness since her teens and was increasingly complaining of aches and pains. Following the death of her mother, she began telling doctors that bugs were eating her kidneys and feet, and feared exposure to radiation and rat poisoning.

On April 12, 2007, she contacted the Final Exit Network and faxed paperwork to Egbert, who dispatched two regional exit guides to travel to Van Voorhis' Phoenix, Ariz., home, where she reaffirmed her desire to "hasten her death."

Final Exit's preferred method involves piping helium into an oxygen-eliminating hood placed over the individual's head. Largely for legal reasons, however, network members do not provide the materials and are hands-off in the actual suicide.

Instead, Van Voorhis' guides arranged pillows. They advised her to activate a minimal amount of helium from a tank, purchased at a party store, so the hood would not fly off. About eight minutes after Van Voorhis eased on the tank, she fell asleep. She began breathing irregularly.

Four minutes later, she was dead.

Her guides then moved some of the pillows, so her death would appear natural, and removed the helium tanks and the hood, and placed them in separate trash bins in an industrial park.

Unlike many cases, Van Voorhis' family had not been advised of her plans, and several days passed before her brother-in-law found her dead. Something didn't seem right.

"She was 58 years old, and she was in relatively good health," Jared Thomas, 66, who found the body, told The Sun. "It was unusual to see someone that age dead in bed, especially when it was made to look so clean and sanitary, like she had died in her sleep."

Final Exit Network

Though always active in social advocacy, Egbert's interest in the right-to-die movement came late in life. Born in Chevy Chase, Egbert went to high school in the District of Columbia and attended the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland Medical School.

During a stay in Texas in 1982, he read a newspaper article about a man who had been executed by the state through lethal injection. The article listed the cocktail of drugs used by the state, and Egbert recognized them as the very same drugs — in similar doses — that he was administering to patients.

He says the key moment came in the mid-1980s when the pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Dallas asked if he would euthanize a parishioner with cancer. After researching the issue, he agreed, and though the woman's daughter talked her out of it, he became a believer in the benefits and rights to assisted suicide.

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