October 11, 2007

Ashley X doctor commits suicide

Shocking news today: Daniel Gunther, the doctor at the center of the Ashley X controversy, has committed suicide. From MSNBC:
Dr. Daniel F. Gunther died from toxic asphyxia from inhaling car exhaust, said Greg Hewett of the King County Medical Examiner's Office. His time of death was listed as 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 30. The 49-year-old was a pediatric endocrinologist at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington.

In 2004, Gunther and his colleague Dr. Douglas S. Diekema performed a hysterectomy, removed the breast tissue and started hormone treatment to permanently halt the growth of a 6-year-old disabled girl so her parents could continue to care for her at home. The doctors wrote about the procedure, which was performed at Children's Hospital, in the October 2006 issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

News of the procedure last fall sparked debate about the ethics of the treatment both online and in the medical community. One poster on MSNBC.com's message boards called the procedure "offensive if not perverse." Others supported the decision: " I feel like everything [the parents] are doing is intended to be in the best interest of their child."

This is particularly upsetting for me, not just because I supported Gunther during the controversy, but because of the possibility that his suicide was wrought by undue pressure exacted on him by overzealous and vocal disability groups.

Back in January when the Ashley controversy was at its peak, Dr. Gunther joined the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies site. In reference to my article, "Helping Families Care for the Helpless," he wrote to us:
[T]he article on the IEET site was one of the first sane and rational responses I came across. All of us here appreciate your support. I am hoping that in time more rational voices will increasingly make themselves heard, while the more reactionary ones fade away.
Evidently this didn't happen. What a shame.

**ADDENDUM: 12-Oct-07
According to this Seattle Times article, friends and family of Dr. Gunther insist that the suicide was not fueled by the Ashley controversy.


Michael Anissimov said...

That sucks. :-( I think Dr. Gunther did the right thing.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Gunther was and remains the best man I have ever known.I'm biased, of course, as he saved my childs life in 2002. He was a courageous dr and good friend.

Anne Corwin said...

I'm never happy about anyone's death, much less suicide, but I think it's a bit short-sighted of you to speculate that "pressure from disability groups" had anything to do with it.

The fact that the news media is still, even after all the Ashley press, perpetuating and repeating statements about disabled children being "babies" and how they ought to be "kept like children" even as they become adults means that the culture really didn't learn very much.

Which means we need more disability advocacy, not less.

Medical procedures meant to truly improve a person's quality of life are one thing, but I don't think that it will ever really be possible to properly parse the ethics of such procedures until the objectification and infantilization of disabled people disappears.

Anonymous said...

Rather than trying to place blame on the tragic ending to this wonderful man's life, please support the Daniel Gunther Memorial at Children's Hospital/Seattle. Dr. Gunther was a good & courageous man who was able to successfully treat my daughter when no one else would take the time to make the correct diagnosis. He always tried to make the best decision for the patient & he should not be forgotten; regardless of how he died.

Lesley said...

I was saddened to hear about this. No one deserves that death.

As a member of an "overzealous" disability group, I really resent having the blame put on me and others like me who, like Dr. Gunther, are deeply concerned about the quality of life of people with disabilities in this country. We spoke out. We did not lash out blindly and without reflection. To disagree with you does not make me reactionary.

Dr. Gunther made choices. To not agree with his choices does not make me party to his death.

Dr. Gunther was given a choice about what happened to his body. Ashley was not. For me to be concerned about that does not make me a criminal or short-sighted or a zealot.

Unknown said...

My child saw Dr. Gunther and I was shocked to learn that he had died when I called to set up a return appointment. He was a kind and honest man and a good doctor.

DoctorsAreNotGods said...

This entire story is sad. However, it also clearly indicates that Dr. Gunther suffered emotional problems. Suicide is usually not a spur of the moment thing and is something that one may contemplate for months if not years. In this case, it appears that Dr. Gunter allowed his emotional problems and instability to interfere with his medical practice. Regardless of right or wrong, he knowingly and wilfully broke a law and medical standard. No man or doctor should make himself above the law -- especially when it directly relates to the care of his patients.