PAUL D. MALLEY: UF gave a soapbox to a convicted murderer


Published: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 5:26 p.m.

The University of Florida again brought national attention to itself when it spent $50,000 to give Jack "Dr. Death" Kevorkian a soapbox on which to drum up support for physician-assisted suicide. How disappointing that nowhere in the crowd of several thousand did anyone have the courage to stand up and yell, "Don't kill me, Doc!"

Far be it for me to stoke another Gainesville-Tallahassee rivalry, but later this month Florida State University and Tallahassee Community College also will host a discussion about dying in America. However, instead of a convicted murderer, FSU and TCC will welcome nationally renowned physician Ira Byock of Dartmouth Medical School to talk about what it means to live and die well.

As the author of "The Four Things that Matter Most," Dr. Byock emphasizes the importance of compassion, forgiveness, love, and gratitude, not simplistic please-pass-the-poison 'solutions.' "

It's no secret that, as a society, we often do a poor job of caring for people who are sick and near the end of life. When faced with a life-threatening illness, most people say they would want to be at home, surrounded by loved ones, free from pain, comfortable, with time to focus on family relationships and spiritual matters.

Unfortunately, the exact opposite is often the reality; most people die in hospitals and nursing homes, often alone or surrounded by strangers, and hooked up to tubes and machines they don't want. Dying can be miserable, and many of us have personal stories to prove it.

That may be one reason why Jack Kevorkian gained a following in the 1990s when he assisted in the deaths of more than 130 people. They feared a miserable end, and "Dr. Death" gave them what he thought was the perfect way out. It's always easier to kill a person than to care for them.

Ever since Florida-based Aging with Dignity was founded more than 10 years ago, we've held the strong conviction that assisted suicide is not the answer to the challenges at the end of life. When Gov. Lawton Chiles convened a forum on end-of-life care in Miami to explore the issues surrounding assisted suicide, Dr. Byock made an articulate case against assisted suicide and argued there is a better way to address the concerns of people at the end of their lives.

It was at the same forum that the idea for the Five Wishes advance directive evolved. Since then, more than 11 million people worldwide have used Five Wishes to convey their preferences to loved ones and health care providers.

Its unique combination of a user-friendly format and attention to personal and spiritual matters, in addition to important medical issues, has made Five Wishes the most popular advance care planning document in the world. It meets the legal requirements in most states, including Florida and Georgia, and is a practical way for all adults to plan ahead of a health crisis with a focus on dignified care.

I wonder how many families paying tuition and activity fees at UF endorse giving America's most prolific and notorious killer $50,000 to preach his dead-end philosophy.

Tallahassee's institutions of higher learning have indeed chosen the better part.

aul Malley is president of Aging with Dignity, a Florida-based national advocate for dignified care at the end of life, www.agingwithdignity.org.

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