Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : July 6th 2015 Contents A31
Monday, July 6, 2015 www.guardian.co.tt Guardian
BOGOTA--- Dr Gustavo Quintana walks
out of a modest, two-floor apartment
building in southern Bogota. Inside his
black doctor s bag are vials containing
anesthesia and muscle relaxants, a
syringe and a rubber tourniquet.
The man known in Colombia as Dr
Death has just ended the life of his 234th
patient: a middle-aged woman suffering
from incurable stomach cancer.
For years, Quintana and a handful of
other physicians have been performing
what they consider mercy killings in a
semi-clandestine state, at risk of prose-
cution and amid widespread rejection from
other doctors and church officials.
But their work took a step out of the
shadows on Friday when, after weeks of
heated public debate and last-minute legal
challenges, 79-year-old Ovidio Gonzalez
became the first Colombian to die as a
result of government-sanctioned euthana-
sia.Gonzalez, 79, died at a hospital in the
western city of Pereira after suffering from
terminal mouth cancer the past five years.
His death is the first in accordance with
an April decree by the Health Ministry
mandating that clinics perform the pro-
cedure when requested by terminally ill
A Constitutional Court ruling 17 years
ago made Colombia the first and still only
country in Latin America, and one of just
a handful worldwide, to allow euthanasia.
The ruling was based on justices inter-
pretation of a constitutional clause guar-
anteeing Colombians the right to live---
and presumably die---with dignity.
But Congress never passed laws regu-
lating the procedure, as the high court
had ordered, leaving the issue in a state
of legal limbo.
In April the Health Ministry finally intervened,
providing the regulatory guidelines for insurers and
Religious groups and many doctors were outraged
by the new rules, which require all hospitals to
form medical committees to evaluate a patient s
request for euthanasia.
Local Roman Catholic leaders threatened to
close the dozens of hospitals the church runs in
Colombia if required to carry out what it considers
murder, and Colombia s conservative Inspector
General tried to block application of the new rules.
Controversy was further ignited by Gonzalez s
decision to take his plight public and make himself
a test case for the law. He was assisted by his son,
Julio Cesar Gonzalez, a cartoonist for top-selling
newspaper El Tiempo better known by his pen
name "Matador," or "Killer." On Friday, Gonzalez
bade farewell to his father in a cartoon showing
the grim reaper, scythe in hand, asking his father
why his bags are packed.
"I m dying to travel," answers his father, suitcases
Dr Gabriela Sarmiento, a hospice specialist with
health care provider Colsanitas, said there likely
won t be a flood of patients taking advantage of
the new liberties. In the nearly three months since
the government s decree, the two hospitals she
works at have received just five such requests, two
of which were withdrawn.
Sarmiento said when given the option of living
with pain or dying immediately, "most people opt
for the path of palliative care."
Members of Colombia s right-to-die movement
are nonetheless celebrating, saying the new decree
provides clarity to a practice that had been going
on for years in secret. Colombia is among only a
handful of countries including Belgium, the Nether-
lands and Switzerland that have either legalised or
decriminalised assisted suicide for the terminally
ill. Four US states---Oregon, Washington, Montana
and Vermont---also have laws on the books.
"The ambiguity of the law provoked a lot of fear
among doctors," said Carmenza Ochoa, president
of Colombia s Right to Die with Dignity founda-
Quintana says barely a week goes by without
him receiving a phone call from a patient or family
member looking to end their agony. He claims to
have helped more sick people die than the late Jack
Kevorkian, the Detroit doctor who went to jail for
murder while claiming to have helped some 130
people end their lives. However Quintana has never
even been prosecuted.
Most of the procedures he performs are in peo-
ple s home, with the patient surrounded by loved
During the nine minutes the procedure typically
lasts he whispers the same soothing mantra while
injecting a mixture of lethal drugs: "Rest, you re
going to sleep for the last time, a restorative sleep."
Quintana worries the new regulations don t go
far enough. "If a group of doctors determine you re
not terminally ill, your personal wishes are annulled."
Among those Quintana has helped end their lives
is Diego Castro, a well-loved bar owner in the
prime of his life when doctors discovered he had
a brain tumor in 2009.
Three surgeries were unable to eliminate the
cancer and he became partially paralysed and suf-
fered so much pain that he tried to commit suicide
jumping from a building.
Juanita Castro says her brother struggled to con-
vince loved ones to accept his desire to die and
that on two occasions he backed down at their
insistence. Three years after her brother s death
Castro said she has no regrets.
"When we deny our loved ones the right to apply
euthanasia we re really thinking more in ourselves
than in the person we love," she said Castro. "It s
a selfish decision because we don t want to see
them to go." (AP)
Government sanctions Colombia's 'Dr Death'
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