What would you do if someone told you that you had to write the prescription for the drugs used in an execution? What would you say?
That happened to me in 1989 in Nevada when I had only been a prison doctor for two years. I did not have a medical director to turn to for advice, nor did I have another physician in the system who had worked there longer than me. The last execution had been done in 1985 and I was shocked when I was asked to violate my Hippocratic Oath.
I didn’t hesitate when I said, “I’m not going to do it. “ The person in administration was not pleased and told me that other prison doctors had done it in the past and ‘it was my job.’ Visions of people giving shocks to other people in experiments and soldiers leading children into gas chambers in Nazi POW camps surged thru my mind where individuals just did what they were told to do.
I did not write those prescriptions nor did I ever take part in the ten executions that took place during my career. I was curious though about the impact that it had on staff who were involved in the execution. I found out that the custody officers who were responsible for carrying out the execution volunteered to be part of it and one officer I talked to said it was an ‘honor’ to make sure the process occurred without a problem.
I talked with the Chaplin about his role in the execution process and he told me that the first execution he witnessed was in 1979 where the gas chamber was used. He said that an officer had to go into the chamber after the inmate died and pierce his chest to let the gas out . The experience so affected the officer that he never was able to work as a custody officer again. The Chaplin said that after that event and the concern that the old gas chamber was leaking gas into the viewing area led the system to change to lethal injection.
I also learned a history lesson about Nevada State Prison (1862-2012) where the executions occurred. It was the first prison in the United States to use lethal gas in 1924. The historian for Nevada told me that when they first tried the gas on Gee Jon it didn’t kill him the first time and they had to repeat it the next day.
The whole process surrounding capital punishment did not make sense to me. Studies showed it didn’t deter crime. It was extremely costly for the system to prosecute and get the death penalty, keep inmates on death row and legally deal with all their appeals. I was told that the families of victims wanted revenge and I was once chastised for not keeping a terminally ill cancer patient alive long enough so that he could be executed.
I don’t know how other systems and correctional physicians now deal with executions, but I’m glad that I chose not to be part of executions. When I left the Nevada Department of Corrections in 2016 I remember one of my patients who was on death row that I started taking care of in 1987 who had HIV and lived to develop diabetes, neuropathy, kidney failure, cancer and was still alive in 2016 after being on dialysis for ten years. If you had nursed a patient thru all of that for 30 years and still wanted to live would you then turn around and write the medications for their execution?