Remembering Dr. Kevorkian’s suicide machines and other deliverance contraptions

We all know Jack Kevorkian was a doctor, but few know he was also a painter and a jazz composer; his 1997 CD, “The Kevorkian Suite: A Very Still Life” features Kevorkian on the flute and organ, alongside The Morpheus Quintet.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian, more than anything else, was an inventor. His Thanatron suicide machine looked like a hastily assembled high school science fair entry.

Perhaps more than anything though, Kevorkian, who died last Friday, was an inventor. He masterminded several suicide machines, the first of which, the Thanatron, looked like a hastily assembled high school science fair entry.

The device consisted of a metal frame with three canisters, each containing a syringe and an IV which connected to a patient’s arm. The first canister held saline solution, the second a sleep-inducing barbiturate called sodium thiopental and the third, a mix of potassium chloride, which stops the heart and pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant that prevents spasms during the dying process (the same three drugs are used in lethal injection executions). The process is initiated with the saline solution. The patient then begins the barbiturate drip themselves by throwing a switch, pushing a button or pulling a string. Either a timer or a mechanical device triggered by the patient’s falling arm, which becomes sleepy as the drugs take effect, starts the lethal potassium chloride flow. Death usually occurs within two minutes.

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Just two people died using the Thanatron before Kevorkian lost the medical license that gave him access to some of the drugs involved in the process. In response, he invented a machine that didn’t need them, the Mercitron. It consisted of a canister of carbon monoxide attached to a face mask with a tube. A valve, turned by the patient, started the gas flowing. This method took 10 minutes longer, according to Kevorkian. He encouraged patients to take sedatives or muscle relaxants to keep calm as they waited for the gas to take effect.

In the mid-1990s, as Kevorkian was coming under scrutiny from law officials, an Australian doctor named Philip Nitschke was developing the Deliverance Machine. It looked just as sci-fi as it sounded; a laptop attached to a large black medical box. A piece of software on the laptop called “Deliverance” asked patients a series of questions, automatically administering a lethal injection of barbiturates if certain answers were given. The idea being that patients had full control over the decision to take their own lives. Four terminally ill patients used the Deliverance Machine in Australia’s Northern Territories before the act legalizing the procedure was overturned.

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In 2008, Nitschke invented a euthanasia device with Exit International consisting of an ordinary barbecue gas bottle filled with nitrogen and a plastic suicide bag and plastic tubing. By inhaling the pure nitrogen, patients lost consciousness in just 12 seconds, without the twitching sometimes caused by using helium, the gas used in earlier models. Another advantage to the machine, according to Nitschke, was it used ordinary household products available at any hardware store. “It’s extremely quick and there are no drugs,” he said. “Importantly this doesn’t fail – it’s reliable, peaceful, available and with the additional benefit of undetectability.”

Nitschke’s latest device is very similar to the one that recently landed a charming if a bit eccentric 91 year-old San Diego woman a visit from the FBI. Sharlotte Hydorn had been selling suicide kits online; a clear plastic bag and medical grade tubing, they come in a box decorated with butterflies and cost $60. Customers place the bag over their heads, connect the tubing from the bag to a helium tank, turn the valve and breathe. Within minutes they are asphyxiated.

One problem authorities have with the device is it is not being used exclusively by the terminally ill. Last December, one of Hydorn’s devices was found over the head of a 29 year old Eugene, Oregon man. “This is analogous to putting a gun-vending machine next to a depression clinic,” the man’s outraged brother told reporters at the time. As much backlash as the Oregon incident spawned, it also doubled Hydorn’s sales, which rose to about 100 per month. It got the Feds on her scent too, though. Still, Hydorn doesn’t seem concerned.

“Do I look like a criminal?” she asked reporters gathered at her home last week. “People commit suicide by jumping out of windows and buildings, and hanging themselves,” she continued. Her product, she says, ends lives peacefully, leaving people “eternally sleepy.”

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