It was chilly but sunny in Detroit on June 4, the day Janet Adkins had chosen to die. The Portland, Ore., woman, who a year ago learned she had Alzheimer’s disease, awoke from a sound sleep in her room at a motel. Her husband, Ron, was already awake, in fact he hadn’t slept all night. They both dressed, Janet in a white blouse and black suit with a black, white and red scarf. At 9 A.M. a knock at the door marked the arrival of Flora Holzheimer and her sister Margo Janus, intermediaries who were to help Janet carry out her purpose.
“I cried a lot, and Janet was comforting me,” says Ron, 57, who had bought two tickets back to Portland in case she changed her mind. “She was so powerful. She was holding me up.” In a few minutes Carroll Rehmke, Janet’s closest friend for 32 years, joined them, and they wept and embraced. And then Janet Adkins, 54, said goodbye.
An hour later she arrived at Groveland Oaks County Park, where Flora and Margo’s brother, a retired pathologist named Jack Kevorkian, was waiting in his rusting, white 1968 VW van. Inside he had set up an electrocardiograph machine and an IV apparatus, which would first inject Janet with a harmless saline solution. At her own touch of a button, the device would infuse her with the anesthetic Thiopental Sodium to put her to sleep and finally with potassium chloride, which would stop her heart. Dr. Kevorkian had hoped for a more graceful setting for this first use of what he calls his benevolent monster. I tried so many places,” he says. “And every place turned me down. But Janet didn’t care what the environment was.”
Inside the van, things did not go right at first. Kevorkian spilled one of his drugs and had to drive to his tiny apartment to get more. Janet quietly settled into a bed in the back, a light blanket covering her. Then, when Kevorkian got back, he had to try three times before he could get the needle into the small veins of Janet’s arm. All told, two hours went by before he finally showed her how to start the device. Janet asked Flora to read some passages she had brought along, including the 23rd Psalm and a message from Carroll, and then, shortly before 2:30 P.M., Janet pushed the button.
As the Thiopental began to work, Janet looked up at Kevorkian and said, “Thank you, thank you so much.”
“Have a nice trip,” he replied.
Five minutes later Janet Adkins was dead, and a troubling debate about life’s end had been born.
Every year some 30,000 adult Americans commit suicide. Had Janet Adkins ended her life in one of the usual ways, she would be mourned now only by her family and friends. But by enlisting the aid of a doctor, she had created a maelstrom over the rights of the chronically ill to decide when and how they will die (see related stories on page 44) and whether a doctor should play a role in such an act.
Ever since Kevorkian notified police about what took place on that fateful morning, Janet’s widower and their sons, Neil, 32, Norman, 29, and Ronald, 26, have been the objects of worldwide attention. “This has been a nightmare,” says Ron, who, feeling unable to witness the last moments, waited at the motel for Kevorkian to phone that Janet was dead, then flew home. Says Neil, an investment broker: “My mother believed in the cause, but the publicity goes against her fiber.” Still, Janet knew her death would not go unnoticed. “She was so vital and active,” says her friend Joyce Holce. “There was nothing she would not try.”
Janet Ericksen, the daughter of a lumber inspector and a housewife, was born in Longview, Wash., and grew up in Portland, where she was a high school honor student and athlete. At 16, she met Ron when they both were playing in a summertime band. “I was the first French horn player, and she was third or fourth,” he recalls. “I don’t know if she fell in love with me or my horn playing. Three years later we got married.” He was drafted in 1955 and they wound up in France. When they came home, Ron taught music for a few years before becoming an investment broker. Janet gave piano lessons, then taught English as a second language, and the family traveled widely. They often returned to France and during the 1970s lived in London for a year. Janet took up hang gliding and mountain climbing. She and Ron traveled to Hong Kong, Spain, Hawaii and Monaco. Six years ago Janet trekked the Himalayas; Ron didn’t go because of the suffering he would see in India. “I cry easily,” he says. “I had seen beggars in Mexico, and I couldn’t handle it.”
Then, about four years ago, something seemed wrong. Suddenly, Janet couldn’t read the sheet music she had played all her life. She had trouble reading and working with numbers, and although she was an excellent tennis player to the end—she beat Neil a week before her death—she couldn’t keep score anymore. Finally she went with Ron to the hospital for tests. On June 12, 1989, Dr. Kenneth Erickson, a psychiatrist, told them she had Alzheimer’s. “He talked about how [eventually] I would have to dress her and take her to the bathroom,” recalls Ron. “I don’t think that needed to be said. Right then Janet said, ‘I want to exit.’ ” She wanted to make the decision while still capable.
It was a shock, not a surprise. Years earlier Ron and Janet had joined the Hemlock Society, and they strongly believed in its precept that the severely ill have a right to end their lives. “She looked at the options, including jumping out the window, but none of these give you dignity in death,” says Ron. “Somebody finds you, or you vomit the drug up.” Janet told only a few friends like Peggy and Bob Morrison about either her disease or her decision. “It seems bizarre, but I admired her courage,” says Peggy. “She felt it was a gift to her family, sparing them the burden of taking care of her.” Their sons, however, were deeply upset. “I derived my strength from her,” says Neil. “She just breathed in life. She never closed doors.” Janet and the boys went into counseling. “I felt that was really fortunate,” says Norman, a financial planner who was temporarily estranged from his mother in the wake of a turbulent adolescence. “If Mom had died in a car wreck, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity.” Still, Norman and Neil persuaded her to try an experimental drug program at the University of Washington in January. After 10 weeks, the doctors saw no progress and halted her program. By that time, she had already made contact with Kevorkian.
She could not have found a collaborator less like herself. The only son of a contractor and a homemaker, Kevorkian, who grew up in Pontiac, Mich., calls his life “a failure.” “If I had married, I’d have had kids—kids and family are everything. Looking back,” he says, “I would do almost everything differently.” Except for a love of Bach and TV cartoons (“my favorite is Sylvester the Cat”), his life has been devoted to one obsession: the study of death, the subject of his first research project as a University of Michigan resident. His ideas for medical experiments on death-row inmates got him thrown out of Michigan after two years. He completed his residency at Pontiac General Hospital. Eight years ago he retired from pathology to write papers on such topics as lethal injection and euthanasia, but last year he decided that “the time for writing and talk has ended.” He began making his machine, using parts found in flea markets and junk shops. It cost about $30. When his attempt to place an ad for it in a medical journal was rejected, the story was picked up by Newsweek, and Janet Adkins read about it.
Her family got together for the final time on Memorial Day: They all went out to dinner, then back to the one-bedroom apartment that Ron and Janet had lived in for 14 months. Their two pairs of binoculars sit side by side on the window ledge. There they videotaped themselves as a memento of their life together. Next, Janet videotaped messages to her three grandchildren and wrote her mother, Viola, 82, who knew about her plan but not the timing. On Friday, Ronald took his dad to the airport, and Norman drove Janet in his Porsche, which she wanted to enjoy one more time. She hugged her sons, cried, and got on the plane. She cried again as she looked down on her beloved Portland, and then she got excited about the trip.
“It’s hard for people to understand,” says Carroll Rehmke, “but we had fun all weekend.” They went sightseeing, read poems and religious verses aloud and had dinner with Kevorkian and his sisters, whom Carroll found caring and supportive. “I don’t think anybody has regrets,” she says, “because we had a whole year to say goodbye.”
Four days after Janet died, an Oakland County Circuit judge barred Kevorkian from using his device again. “It’s the end of Dr. K. helping patients die,” Kevorkian said. Janet’s body remained in Michigan for an autopsy. After cremation, her ashes would be scattered over the Pacific.
Janet orchestrated her own memorial service, held in Portland’s First Unitarian Church six days after her suicide. At her request, Carroll read ‘The Waking” by Theodore Roethke, which begins:
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
“Janet lived her life as a pioneer,” Carroll told them all, “and that’s how she chose to leave it.”
—Bonnie Johnson, Julie Greenwalt in Royal Oak and Susan Hauser in Portland