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Sanjay Gupta MD

Assisted Suicide or Manslaughter; Health Care on Trial; The World's Oldest Yoga Teacher

Aired June 23, 2012 - 16:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Hi there. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

You know, we've all known people who suffered with a long-lasting illness. Maybe they're even suffering now. And some have wondered and it's tough to talk about, but if it were me, is there ever a point where I'd want to end that suffering?

We're talking about assisted suicide and it's only legal strictly speaking in two states -- Washington and Oregon. That leaves a lot of desperate people who struggle with painful conditions.

Now, one group has made it a mission to try and ease that misery. But as I found out in my exclusive investigation some families and law enforcement now think they've gone too far.


GUPTA (voice-over): When Jana Van Voorhis passed away, she didn't leave much behind.

VIKI THOMAS, JANA VAN VOORHIS' SISTER: This is pretty much Jana's life, a notebook of her medical histories, doctors, hospitals, lab, prescriptions.

GUPTA: This is Jana's older sister, Viki. She and her husband, Tom live in the same Phoenix neighborhood as Jana did. They saw her suffer. While Jana had trouble most of her life, it had become progressively worse.

V. THOMAS: She just -- it was just very tough for her daily. She took lots of different medicines to make her feel better.

GUPTA (on camera): Did she ever complain of physical pain?

V. THOMAS: All the time. She thought she was seriously ill.

GUPTA (voice-over): And then Viki got a troubling call one day. A woman who said she was a friend of Jana's from church.

V. THOMAS: She said to me, you know how Jana's always sick, and we're very worried about her because we can't get a hold of her.

And so I called her and didn't get an answer. And then I waited until the next day and called and didn't get an answer.

And then we decided, well, maybe we should go check and see what's happening.

GUPTA (on camera): It was here at Jana's house that Tom and Viki discovered the worst. They got a spare key, entered the home, and then found Jana lying in her bed. It was shortly thereafter that they suspected foul play.

TOM THOMAS, JANA VAN VOORHIS' BROTHER-IN-LAW: I think when we're going through her belongings, there were a couple things that we found. One was a brochure of "The Final Exit Network."

GUPTA: And in Jana's checkbook, another important clue. On February 13th, 2007, "Final Exit Network" membership fees, $50. But what was "Final Exit?"

Online, they found this web site. It says, "The Final Exit Network" serves members in all 50 states who are suffering from intolerable medical circumstances, are mentally competent, want to end their lives, and meet our official written criteria.

And suddenly it all made sense. That's when Tom and Viki realized that Jana had gotten help to kill herself.

I went to meet Dr. Lawrence Egbert. He's the man who approved Jana's request to die.

He's a retired anesthesiologist. And he was "Final Exit's" medical director at the time of Jana's death. He's 84 years old, he's friendly, charming, disarming. He doesn't own a cell phone or a car. And he is passionate about this cause.

DR. LAWRENCE EGBERT, FORMER MEDICAL DIRECTOR, "FINAL EXIT NETWORK": A lot of people think of this as -- it's such a good idea.

GUPTA: According to "Final Exit's" own records, these saints, as he calls them, help hundreds of people to, quote, "hasten death." By his own account, when he was director, Egbert approved about 300 "Final Exit" applicants.

(on camera): Do people apply to "The Final Exit Network?"

EGBERT: I can give you a telephone number if you want. I got the telephone number.

GUPTA: What will they say to me if I called them?

EGBERT: They would say, I'll get your name and your telephone number and somebody will call you back in a few days. And that person would then call you back and ask you why.

GUPTA: Could you approve somebody without having met them?

EGBERT: Yes. I could. And say, this is reasonable to proceed.

GUPTA (voice-over): If that all sounds unnerving, then also consider this -- according to police reports, Jana told "Final Exit" she had lesions on the liver, possible breast cancer, head injuries, removal of the gallbladder, over exposure to radiation and ingestion of rat poison.

(on camera): Did she have liver lesions?



GUPTA: Did she have breast cancer?


GUPTA: Did she have toxic pesticimia (ph), toxins from rats?



GUPTA: Did she have arsenic poisoning?



GUPTA: Did you know all of this when looking at her application?

EGBERT: I have the same record they had.

GUPTA (voice-over): The problem is Dr. Egbert took Jana at her word. No doctor ever confirmed any of those physical ailments. Jana certainly wasn't terminal. Not even physically ill.

And there was something else. In one of Jana's last psychiatric evaluations, her psychiatrist noted, this patient has become increasingly psychotic, on the last page, Jana's diagnosis, psychosis.

(on camera): Her brother-in-law and sister said she had lifelong issues of mental illness, which was relevant. Did you question, given the mental instability?


GUPTA: Wouldn't that be a big red flag?

EGBERT: It's a red flag all right. The question is how big. It was very clear from her psychiatric notes al over the file that she had psychiatric problems and if I was uncomfortable with my ability to say or decide on that, I had psychiatric -- psychologists who I did not bother.

GUPTA (voice-over): No psychologists, no psychiatrists, no other doctors were consulted. Still, again and again, Egbert told me he stood by his decision and he said "Final Exit" volunteers saw nothing wrong either.

Jana's exit guide as the group calls it was 87-year-old Frank Langsner. He had known Jana about a month before he went to her house and watched her die.

FRANK LANGSNER, JANA'S EXIT GUIDE: She appeared to be competent. She did drive a car. She did, you know, go to the grocery store. She did keep a pretty good looking house, an apartment. So, that was my impression. So there was no question in my mind that if she wanted to go through with the event --

GUPTA: As an exit guy Langsner says he is very careful not to give specific suicide instructions.

LANGSNER: And then they may have some questions about it. But we don't touch any materials or any equipment. So they're on their own.

GUPTA: For Jana, here's what the last few days of her life looked like. March 27th, 2007, she wrote a check out to party city for $64.84. She noted helium balloon kits. A few days later, she bought other supplies. I don't want to get too specific.

(on camera): Ever get used to seeing it? You saw this a hundred times.

EGBERT: The day I get used to it I will stop.

GUPTA (voice-over): When breathed in helium depletes the body of oxygen.

Dr. Egbert showed me how it all works. We've chosen not to show the details but to see it first hand even as a demonstration was disturbing.

(on camera): Is it horrifying to you? Because it's horrifying to me to just hear about it.


GUPTA: I can't imagine being there.

EGBERT: Well, see, you haven't -- you're not talking to a guy who's suffering with pain who is smiling and saying, "Thank you. Thank you, doctor."

GUPTA (voice-over): Langsner and one other guide were with Jana on her final night. April 12th, 2007.

LANGSNER: She had new pajamas on and, once again, we ask many times, are you sure you want to do this? We're not encouraging you. We want to know that you really want to do this. And she said, yes. Let's do it. And that was it.

GUPTA: It took approximately 15 minutes for Jana Van Voorhis to die. According to Dr. Egbert, she did not experience any pain.

It took months for Phoenix investigators to file charges. Under Arizona law, assisting a suicide is manslaughter. Last year, Langsner and Egbert were tried in connection to Jana's death. Jana's mental health was considered irrelevant by the court and it was excluded from the trial.

Egbert was acquitted while Langsner and two other "Final Exit" members pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

(on camera): What would you say to them if they were here?

T. THOMAS: I would say to them bluntly they screwed up. I think they were so intent on what they were doing they just kind of put that aside and continued with their mission.

GUPTA: If it weren't for the "Final Exit Network", Viki, do you think Jana would still be alive?

V. THOMAS: Yes, I do.

GUPTA (voice-over): Egbert is now retired from the "Final Exit" board. Langsner pleaded to the lesser charge of endangerment and recently finished probation.

LANGSNER: If I made a mistake or, you know, made mistakes, I wouldn't do them again but I didn't make a mistake. I think the law -- the law happens to be the mistake, to have a law like that. Assisted suicide, we didn't assist anybody. So I go back.

GUPTA: As of this airing, "Final Exit" continues to take applications to help people kill themselves.


GUPTA: Dr. Lawrence Egbert, as well as three other "Final Exit" members, have now been indicted for their work in Minnesota. We're going to follow that case as well and keep you posted on what happens.

Shifting gears to the Supreme Court and Obamacare. I'm going to tell you the one thing you really need to understand.

Plus, the world's oldest living yoga instructor. She is 93. She's coming by to share her secret.

Stay with us.


GUTPA: That's me and some of the CNN medical team on Thursday, at 10:00 a.m., waiting to see if the Supreme Court would release its Obamacare decision.

As you know, it didn't happen. But barring a shocker, the ruling will arrive this week. Most observers are betting on Monday.

Now, the biggest issue as you probably heard for the court is the individual mandate. Here's what it means. Starting in 2014, if you don't have insurance through a job and you don't have Medicare or Medicaid, then you have to buy your own coverage just like car insurance.

I'll tell you, it's sort of funny how things go. I've been following this for a long time.

As you probably know most Republicans say the mandate is unconstitutional. But back in the '90s, worth remembering this, the individual mandate was promoted by top Republicans, like Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole and later running for president, Hillary Clinton also wanted a mandate. But at that time Barack Obama, candidate Obama, was against it.


BARACK OBAMA, THEN-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Senator Clinton says, "I'm going to make universal health care by mandating that everybody buy it." But if people can't afford it, it doesn't matter what the mandate is, they're not going to buy it. And, by the way, Senator Clinton still hasn't explained what exactly this mandate is. What's she going to do if somebody doesn't purchase health care? Is she going to fine them? Is she going to garnish their wages?


GUPTA: Of course, you know, he later came around to Mrs. Clinton's position as you know.

So, why does this all matter? I want to tell you a story. I think this is an important context. Since the 1990s, at least eight states have overhauled their insurance laws.

Kentucky is a typical example. In 1994 its new law told insurance companies you have to cover everyone even if they're chronically sick. You can't charge them too much money. Well, it's the same as Obama care but in Kentucky, there was no mandate.

Think of it like this. What if no one bought car insurance until their car was already wrecked on the side of the road? Insurance companies, car insurance companies probably couldn't last and that's pretty much what happened in Kentucky.

Before that law in Kentucky, there were 43 companies selling individual insurance policies. Seven years later there were two. And the law had to be changed, overhauled. It was much the same way in the other states as well.

If the Supreme Court strikes down just the mandate, the whole country now will be in that same boat. Of course, the court could also strike down the entire law or they could leave the entire law intact. Whatever it is, we're going to dig into it next week.

I'll take your questions on twitter all week long @SanjayGuptaCNN.

Still ahead, though, on the program, I'm going to introduce you to a remarkable person, one of my favorite interviews of the year, the world's oldest yoga teacher.


GUPTA: Welcome back to SGMD. You're looking at two of our Fit Nation triathletes right there, Rick Morris and Carlos Solis racing with triathlon relay teams.

Rick says he wanted a taste of the real thing so he completed both the bike and run portion of his race in Asheville, North Carolina.

Carlos is a type 2 diabetic. He did the bike leg of his race near Los Angeles. And he had his teammate, who is Ryan Maloney (ph), 13-year- old type 1 diabetic. It's worth pointing that Ryan and Carlos both won their division.

Congratulations to everybody. Rick, you as well.

Denise Castelli, who is another one of our Fit Nation triathletes, as you know, and she joins me now in the studio.

Good to see you.


GUPTA: Welcome back from Hawaii.

CASTELLI: Thank you.

GUPTA: A pretty great trip.

Now, you're about to do a relay as well in Philadelphia and you're going to be racing with Sarah Reinertsen and also Scout Basset as well. And both of them are athletes, both of them like you are missing a leg.

First of all, how did this all come about? How did this relay come about?

CASTELLI: We're all part of the Challenged Athletes Foundation, a nonprofit that works with people with disabilities.

GUPTA: Is it nerve-racking for you? I mean, they're both -- obviously, they've done this, I've met Scout before and talked to her. How are you feeling about it?

CASTELLI: You know, I met them probably three months after my amputation at a Challenged Athletes Foundation run clinic and, you know, they're just incredible women and I really looked up to them so now to have the chance to be racing right alongside them at the Philly triathlon is very sighting.

GUPTA: Tell me just briefly the Challenged Athletes Foundation, what is that?

CASTELLI: It's a nonprofit and basically, they help people get back on their feet after they have lost a limb or they've been in an accident or are now wheelchair-bound and they use that. They use athletics as a tool to help them get back on their feet.

GUPTA: You're sort of playing it forward as well as I've been learning. You're helping coach and teach people as well, people like you. How is that going? CASTELLI: It's going very well. I mean, you can't describe the feeling when you watch an amputee run for the first time and for me, that happened this past weekend at the run clinic and it was actually two years to the date when I first went to my first run clinic with challenged athletes. So to now be of this clinic and to be teaching other amputees the things that I have learned, it's undescribable, the feeling.

GUPTA: Yes, it's amazing to think about your life as you described it to me a few years ago and what you're doing now, not only doing the athletic endeavors but actually teaching other people. And getting really good on TV as well, I should point. You're very comfortable, very relaxed.

It's always fun to speak with you, Denise. I look forward as I said to crossing that finish line with you.

CASTELLI: I can't wait.

GUPTA: I can't either. It's going to be one of those great moments.

Denise is chasing life. And so is our next guest. At age 93, she's the world's oldest yoga instructor. She is going to share her secrets. That's next.


GUPTA: "Chasing Life" today, one of my favorite parts of the show, with a woman who knows a thing or two about love, light, and truth. At age 93, Tao Porchon-Lynch has been certified by the "Guinness Book of World Records" as the oldest living yoga instructor.

Thanks for joining us.

Like I said, this is one of my favorite parts of the show. The segment is called "Chasing Life." So, let me just ask as a starting point, do you have a secret for long life?


GUPTA: Laugh at the world.

PORCHON-LYNCH: Wake up early in the morning and know that this is going to be a good day and have no fear. I don't believe in fear. I believe nothing is impossible.

And when we tune into our inner self and into the energy within us and everything comes to the best way possible.

GUPTA: I love that. And the idea of waking up with some sort of sense of purpose I think, you know, know what your purpose is.

PORCHON-LYNCH: Absolutely.

GUPTA: How did you become interested in yoga? PORCHON-LYNCH: That comes from when I was young in France (ph), I started in yoga only because I saw boys doing it. And I thought if they can do it I can do it although my aunt said it's not lady-like.

GUPTA: Is that what they said that yoga was not lady like?

PORCHON-LYNCH: Yes, not for women. It wasn't lady-like.

GUPTA: We're watching you on the screen and it is phenomenal what you're able to do. I mean, you're literally balancing your whole body there. How hard is that? I mean, as you watch that is that very difficult?


PORCHON-LYNCH: Sanjay, it's what you call the creed of Asaunas (ph). All day long really all the blood is going down into our legs and we need to bring it back here even when we go to sleep. It helps you go to bed, get rid of all your thoughts and all of your problems and bring the blood back up again.

GUPTA: I love it. I don't know if I can do what you're demonstrating there.

But you're going to turn 94 in August. You've been married twice. You have no children, yet you say you really have 400 some children.


GUPTA: What do you mean by that?

PORCHON-LYNCH: Because I feel that all of my students, no matter what their age, I am there to train and help them. That's -- when they can do something they think they've never been able to do and a smile comes over their face, that's the joy of that.

GUPTA: Pretty gratifying.

PORCHON-LYNCH: It is. It's a joy (ph).

GUPTA: As you may know I'm very interested in diet and I try and take good care of myself. Any tips? I mean, how does your diet -- how has it contributed to your longevity?

PORCHON-LYNCH: I've never eaten meat.

GUPTA: Don't eat meat at all.


GUPTA: Never have.

PORCHON-LYNCH: No, not at all. I like fruit. I have a grapefruit every morning and fruit juice and I don't drink water.

GUPTA: You don't drink water? PORCHON-LYNCH: No, I drink fruit juice. I drink water in tea, for instance. But, no, I don't drink water.

GUPTA: So, no meat. No water. Lots of fruit juice. Yogurt. Nuts.

PORCHON-LYNCH: And vegetables. But I'm not a fanatic. Because I'm really not interested in eating except when I'm with people.

GUPTA: Well, what about sweets? Any sweets, coffee, things like that?

PORCHON-LYNCH: Yes. Milk chocolate.

GUPTA: Milk chocolate.


GUPTA: I love it. I wish I had some for you. You are so adorable. It's a real pleasure to meet you.


GUPTA: I'm going to live much longer now because of this interview. Thank you very much.


GUPTA: Unfortunately, that's going to wrap things up for us at SGMD today. But stay connected at Also, let's keep the conversation going on Twitter @SanjayGuptaCNN.

Time now, though, to get a check of your top stories in the "CNN NEWSROOM".