Maryland strips license of doctor who assisted in six suicides

2014-12-31 | The Baltimore Sun

Dec. 31--A Baltimore anesthesiologist who made national news as "The New Doctor Death" held six elderly Marylanders' hands as they asphyxiated themselves with helium and covered up the suicides after they died, according to a state order filed this month stripping him of his medical license.

The suicides are among nearly 300 Lawrence D. Egbert said he helped arrange across the country as an "exit guide" for right-to-die group Final Exit Network. He and several colleagues were arrested in 2009 amid an undercover investigation in Georgia, but he avoided any punishment there or in another case in Arizona. He awaits trial for assisting in a suicide in Minnesota.

But after a two-year review, the Maryland Board of Physicians said the actions are unethical and illegal, revoking his license. Egbert said he plans to appeal. Board officials would not say whether they referred Egbert's case to law enforcement officials, and none reached by The Sun confirmed any investigation.

The board's decision brings a national debate over assisted suicide to Maryland. Three states have passed laws legalizing it, and some, including former gubernatorial candidate Del. Heather Mizeur, would have Maryland join them. Lawmakers said the issue has never gotten serious discussion in Annapolis, but suspect it could as other states consider it, too.

The debate was rekindled for some after a 29-year-old woman with brain cancer committed suicide Nov. 1 after moving to Oregon to take advantage of that state's "death with dignity" law.

Opponents to such measures said Egbert's punishment was a long time coming.

"Revocation of his medical license is a good thing and long overdue," said Stephen Drake, a research analyst with Not Dead Yet, a Rochester, N.Y., group that advocates for people with disabilities and the elderly.

But advocates for assisted suicide said they are undaunted by the board's action against Egbert.

"He has long been a pioneer for so many things," said Frank Kavanaugh, a member of Final Exit Network's board. "He's an important part of our history. He's been before various legal proceedings before and survived them all."

Egbert, who no longer is active with the network and works from a Charles Village office as an expert witness in federal immigration court, said he stands by his actions.

"This is something that's legitimate," the 87-year-old Hampden resident said. "It's in the Bible as legitimate."

The Maryland board charged Egbert with unprofessional conduct in 2012, tipped off by a Baltimore Sun article in which he said he had assisted in a handful of suicides in Maryland as medical director of the Final Exit Network, based in Tallahassee, Fla. Newsweek dubbed him "The New Doctor Death" in 2011 after he was criminally charged for assisting in suicides in Georgia and Arizona, a decade after Jack Kevorkian went to prison for helping a man with Lou Gehrig's disease kill himself.

The board's report said that after the Final Exit Network accepted a patient it sent them a book detailing how to commit suicide by placing a hood or bag over their head and filling it with helium. The group provided the patients with an "exit guide" who would rehearse the suicide with them and then hold the person's hand while they committed suicide, both for comfort and to prevent the person "from involuntarily displacing the bag during suicide," the report said.

After the person's death, the exit guide removed the "suicide paraphernalia ... to prevent the cause of death from being determined ... and to hinder police investigations into the circumstances of the death," the report said.

The report said Egbert was an exit guide in six such suicides in Maryland from 2004 to 2008, and he said that in each case, the patients were not considered "terminally ill" -- that is, they were not expected to die within six months. Their ages ranged from 68 to 87, and they suffered from illnesses including Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and in one case, depression.

In one case, according to board documents, Egbert helped an 85-year-old woman with a history of diabetes, coronary artery disease and depression kill herself to leave enough money for a trust for her son, who had Asperger syndrome. Her death certificate said she died of heart failure.

In another case, Egbert assisted in the suicide of an 87-year-old woman with worsening depression, but her death certificate said she died of cardiovascular disease, the documents said.

The medical board found that the actions were against the ethics of the American Medical Association and violated Maryland law that prohibits providing a physical means to commit suicide or participating in another's suicide.

But it's not clear if Egbert is or has ever been the subject of a criminal investigation in Maryland. He said he is not aware of any.

Spokesmen for Baltimore and Baltimore County police said they could not confirm any investigations. Officials with the Baltimore state's attorney's office and the state attorney general's office said they were not immediately able to provide information on any investigation. Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger said he was not aware of any investigation.

Egbert and Final Exit Network are awaiting trial in Minnesota in May for charges related to assisting in a suicide and interfering with a dead body. Charges related to a law against "advising and encouraging" suicide were dropped in June after the Minnesota Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a lower court decision that deemed the law unconstitutional.

An Arizona jury acquitted Egbert in the death of an Arizona woman in 2011. Charges against him in Georgia were dropped after the state's Supreme Court overturned a law limiting assisted suicide in 2012.

Voters and lawmakers in states across the country have considered the issue of assisted suicide in recent years.

Washington voters approved a death-with-dignity law in 2008, joining Oregonians who approved a similar measure in 1994. In Montana, a 2009 court case essentially made assisted suicide legal by allowing doctors to use consent as a defense if charged with assisting in suicide. And in 2013, Vermont's state legislature approved a law.

Massachusetts voters narrowly defeated an assisted suicide referendum in 2012. The New Jersey state assembly approved assisted suicide legislation last month, and a companion bill is still pending in the state senate.

In Maryland, Mizeur was the only major candidate to make assisted suicide a campaign issue in this year's gubernatorial race, but she lost in the Democratic primary to Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown. Otherwise, there has been no major push for such a measure.

Del. Kathleen Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat who is vice chairwoman of the House judiciary committee, said she hasn't seen an assisted suicide bill in her dozen years in the legislature, though she expects to have to grapple with the issue in the near future. She said that while she has heard some lawmakers discussing it recently, she does not see a groundswell of support for such a bill nor has she seen draft legislation.

"We're going to see it in several legislatures across the country," Dumais said. "It's an ethical issue that people are thinking about deeply right now."

Denver-based assisted suicide advocacy group Compassion Choices is planning a push for legislation in Maryland and more than a dozen other states in 2015, said spokeswoman Gwen Fitzgerald. The group's efforts started with a rally in Annapolis on Nov. 19 -- what would have been the 30th birthday of Brittany Maynard, the woman who moved from California to Oregon this year so she could end her life legally.

Egbert said that while he doesn't plan to be active in that push, he is "ready to talk to anybody who wants to" about assisted suicide. He still occasionally gives talks on the issue, including a recent sermon at a Unitarian church in Virginia.

"I have a right to talk," Egbert said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Justin Fenton, Erin Cox and Michael Dresser contributed to this report.