Dax Cowart

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Dax Cowart (born Donald S. Cowart, 1947) is an American attorney noted for the ethical issues raised by efforts to sustain his life against his wishes following an accident in which he suffered severe and disabling burns over most of his body. His case is often cited in discussions of medical ethics.[1]


In 1973 Cowart, then a 25-year-old Air Force reserve pilot, visited with his father a tract of land his father was considering for purchase. The land lay in a small valley and, unbeknownst to the Cowarts, a gas leak had filled the area with heavier-than-air propane gas. When the two men started their car the propane was ignited, severely burning them. Cowart's father died.

Cowart's injuries included loss of both hands, eyes, and ears, and two-thirds of his skin area. He wrote later:

I was burned so severely and in so much pain that I did not want to live even in the early moments following the explosion. A man who heard my shouts for help came running down the road, I asked him for a gun. He said, "Why?" I said, "Can’t you see I am a dead man? I am going to die anyway. I need to put myself out of this misery." In a very kind and compassionate caring way, he said, "I can’t do that."[2]

Fearing he would be unable to regain his former level of activity, he refused treatment en route to the hospital but nonetheless survived.

Cowart says that in the hospital he was "forcibly treated for 14 months" despite continually begging his doctors to end treatment and allow him to die. He likened some of the treatments – such as bandage replacement and chlorinated baths – to being "skinned alive". He was given limited painkillers because of a poor understanding of their risks, and was denied access to legal assistance, by which he might have forced treatment to end.[2] He attempted suicide several times.

Later life[edit]

Although blind and without functioning hands, Cowart earned a law degree from Texas Tech University in 1986, and now has his own practice. He changed his first name to Dax because after being repeatedly embarrassed when responding to "Donald", only to find that someone else was being addressed.[2]

Damages recovered from the oil company responsible for the propane leak left him financially secure. His first marriage, in 1988, ended in divorce.[when?] He married again in 2003 and now lives in San Diego.

Cowart has been a frequent participant and speaker at The Trial Lawyers College in Dubois, Wyoming, with Gerry Spence.[who?] In addition to his practice he now speaks on patient rights in the United States and abroad.

Cowart's life and his reflections on what has happened to him continue to challenge medicine's understanding of itself as a moral practice.[3] A documentary of his plight titled Please Let Me Die was filmed in 1974,[4] with a follow-up documentary titled Dax's Case filmed in 1984.[5]

The case illustrates several issues of patient autonomy.[6]


Further reading[edit]

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