Midazolam: A True Story


Former death row prisoner Ron Keine
By: Ron Keine

It's Friday April 17th 2015. As I lie on a gurney I am nervous about the upcoming procedure. Someone inserts an I V in the back of my right hand. Someone else sticks a hypodermic needle into a junction of the IV tube. I asked, “what is that?“ and I am told, “It's just a little something to relax you, a mild sedative." I asked, “So what is it called?“ Imagine my surprise: it was indeed Midazolam.

This word would not rate a second thought to most people. That is unless you are a death penalty abolitionist or a death row survivor, or in my case both. This is the drug responsible for a botched execution in Oklahoma where Clayton Lockett, a death row inmate, reportedly suffered a collapsed vein after the injection and writhed in pain for more than 40 minutes before dying of a heart attack. Ohio botched the execution of Dennis McGuire with this same drug. McGuire gasped for air and took more than 20 minutes to die after being injected with this untested cocktail of drugs. This is what a nurse just put in a vein in my arm.

Am I having a nightmare or something? Have my last many years of life been all a dream and I am now being executed? Have all these years of activism, of fighting for the lives of fellow human beings been a farce? Is this the way the state murders people? Do they give them hypnotic drugs and make them believe they are just going to have a simple operation? 

Calm down, Ron, all is as it appears. All is fine. They have no cognizance of what they are doing to me. I fight the fear and I think it through. Stop that needle! Don't do that! Wait! Wait! I am innocent!

As my blood pressure and heart rate accelerate a nurse pats me on the chest, with a “there, there, just relax, this shot will help you." I wonder if this is the canned response given to the victims of over 40 botched executions in the U.S.? Another nurse declares, “It is perfectly normal for a patient to feel some anxiety before an operation.“ 

As reality seeps in, I assess my situation. I am in the hospital in Sterling Heights, Michigan. I am here for surgery on my hand, which has been bothering me for over a year. Still, do these people have any idea the ramifications of the drug they just put in me? Do they know that executions are on hold in many states because of this infamous drug? I am angry that they injected me with this death drug without prior consultation, but I forgive them for their ignorance.

How could they know that I was once facing this exact scenario, which would have resulted in my last breath. As I lay here, a little more relaxed now, the drug is working. How could they possibly know that I was nine days from my execution date when the real murderer confessed to the very crime I was about to be executed for? My silence prevented any knowledge on their part of how this was affecting me. I just want to get it over with. I remain cooperative but reticent. Now is not the time to tell my story. 

Now they are wheeling my gurney into the operating room. I notice how clean and sterile the room is. There are about 8 people in here all wearing thin blue surgical hair nets like the one they put on me. They pushed my gurney next to the operating table and slid me over on it. Like they probably do several times a day, they pulled out a board on either side of the operating table and splayed my arms out on them. I’m thinking of the resemblance of how they put Jesus on a cross when a sudden shock comes over me again. I’m not lying here with my arms out at 90 degree angles like a crucifixion. The boards my arms are strapped to are at 45 degrees, exactly as they are in the death chambers I had seen in pictures; my fears are returning.

They hook my right arm up to monitors, computer screens and other unidentifiable machines and started washing my whole left arm with a orange yellow antibiotic liquid. They ask me to repeat, as they had done 10 times already at every step of the way, my name, date of birth, age and what I am here for. The anesthesiologist asks me to confirm that I don’t want to be knocked out for the operation, instead settling for a local anesthetic and a mild sedative. If I had only known then that it was indeed the death drug Midazolam, I would asked for something different. A surgical nurse comments that I seem quite awake for someone whom had just been sedated.

I am suddenly shocked into awareness when I feel the incision. I also feel major pain in my right arm that all the monitoring devices and IVs are hooked to. The doctor pauses and asks me if I am feeling pain. Fighting back a sarcastic answer I just say that my right arm is hurting and please continue. I know that if they stop they would have to postpone the operation and wait for more local anesthetic or, even worse, Midazolam, to take effect.

Physical pain? No sweat, I can handle that. I've had much of that in my life, but the emotional pain is entirely something else. This was something I had never expected to encounter; a death row survivor going through a practice or mock execution. These medicos do not have an inkling of the inhumanity of what this is doing to me. Jesus, are you here with me? 

That damn Midazolam inches its way back into my thoughts. This is what the victims of botched executions went through. Is this what Rommel Broom went through on Ohio's death gurney as he screamed “it's not working?“ He screamed in agony for almost two hours before they called off the execution. Is this what Joseph Woods felt during his botched execution in Arizona on July 23 that took nearly two hours, with witnesses reporting that Wood gasped and snorted over 600 times during the procedure? Wood was executed using Midazolam and Hydromorphone, the same drug protocol used in January's 2014 botched execution of Dennis McGuire. Wood was still awake an hour into the procedure.

Why am I here experiencing this? I was set free. I am innocent and everyone knows it. Why me? They say that no good deed goes unpunished. Is this my punishment? Is this God's way of telling me to ramp it up a bit?

Now, I not only know what it is to be on death row, but I also know what it is to be strapped down to a gurney, harnessed, arms outstretched and experience the horrors of a botched procedure from the execution drug, Midazolam. Will the collateral damage of my wrongful death row conviction ever stop coming back to haunt me? Will it ever stop?