Dax Cowart, Forty Years Later: Reflections on Patients' Rights
Nearly forty years ago, Dax Cowart was in a gas pipeline explosion that caused third-degree burns over 68% of this body, and eventually left him blind, hearing impaired, and without fingers. Throughout his hospitalization, at Parkland Hospital in Dallas and later at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, he asked his doctors to please stop the extremely painful daily tank treatments that were preventing skin infection. He stated that he would rather die than continue to endure the daily pain in order to have a greatly diminished future quality of life. In the early 1970s the patient’s legal right to refuse treatment was not well recognized, and so Dax’s pleas were not honored. However, a Sealy Hospital psychiatrist, Robert White, recorded a videotaped interview with Dax dramatizing his daily pain and also his reasoning behind his wish to cease treatment; this film, Please Let Me Die, became a staple in classrooms in the new subject of “bioethics.” Eventually Dax consented to the final round of skin grafting so that he could leave the hospital and go home, but he had a prolonged series of mental health problems, including two suicide attempts, before he improved enough to complete a law degree. Later, Dax, often working alongside Professor William Winslade of the UTMB Institute for the Medical Humanities, became an active spokesperson for patients’ rights to consent to or refuse treatment. The current film considers Dax’s life in 2012 . . .