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Reflections on Dr. Kevorkian ("Dr. Death")


I Did Know Jack - Looking

back on Kevorkian, good

and bad


By Jack Lessenberry, The Metro Times

October 21, 2009


[Dr. Kevorkian was known to many of his neighbors in Royal Oak, a Detroit suburb, as an oddball, as someone given to screaming fits in public. But he became a household word, and, the writer says, inadvertently helped change the way that medicine treats pain.]


Film crews were swarming around the Wayne and Oakland county courthouses last week, shooting a few final scenes for the forthcoming HBO movie, You Don't Know Jack, about our once-nationally famous zero-population-growth activist, Dr. Kevorkian.

Well, I do know Jack. Did, anyway. I covered all the major trials; had behind-the-scenes access to write long pieces for Vanity Fair and Esquire, and saw and interviewed him hundreds of times between 1993 and 1999, when he finally went to the slam.

I have only seen him once since he got out in 2007. He told someone that he didn't want to talk to me anymore because I was "too objective." There are worse things to be accused of.

I have no idea how the movie will portray Kevorkian. Nobody has shown me a script, though I am told some actor, hopefully somebody much better looking than I am, is playing me. However, I do know what really went on. It took me awhile to figure out Jack Kevorkian, whose image was distorted both by the prosecutors and his brilliant, long-time lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger.

Fieger, who was way smarter than his usual adversary, Oakland County Prosecutor Richard Thompson, successfully managed to convince many that his client was something like TV's Marcus Welby: Compassionate, kind, interested only in relieving hopeless suffering.

The prosecutors argued that he was a ghoul who had to be stopped for the good of mankind. They had the law on their side, or did, once the Michigan Supreme Court, politicized then as now, suddenly found a "common-law" prohibition against assisted suicide.

However, the prosecutors lost every time. Jurors are human beings, and many had seen friends and relatives suffer horribly at the end of their lives. Too often, insensitive medical professionals had done far too little to relieve their agony. The jurors I talked with after the trials were, almost without exception, deeply moved by the videotapes Kevorkian made of his patients.

They showed dignified, intelligent people who had suffered greatly, had no hope of getting better, and who were locked in bodies that made life a living hell. Frequently, in the early days, Kevorkian would send them back to their doctors to ask for pain relief. All too often, they would return to report that those doctors wouldn't give them the time of day. Kevorkian, I feel certain, never tried to talk anybody into letting him help them die. However, he also was utterly fascinated by the process by which we pass from life to death. At the end, he did talk one man into letting Kevorkian perform euthanasia, rather than assisted suicide.

Kevorkian videotaped the death, the event that got him sent up for second-degree murder. I watched it with him twice, and watched him watching the tape. He was riveted each time. He reminded me of a sports nut watching a famous home run, over and over.

In fact, he wasn't a physician in the normal sense of the term, but a brilliant though quirky pathologist. Fieger's prospered, it is true, thanks to the fame he received defending Jack Kevorkian. But he cared about him as a person and regarded him as a friend.

Kevorkian doesn't have real friendships. He seemed to have no gratitude toward Fieger, who kept him out of jail for years and enabled him to become an internationally known figure. But for Fieger, Kevorkian would have been thrown in jail after his first assisted suicide and forgotten. Fieger, who worked pro bono, made it possible for Kevorkian to do what he wanted to do — make the "right to die" a national issue. The lawyer also gave him a nice house to live in, sponsored displays of the pathologist's bizarre art, and acted as his press agent.

Eventually, with baffling ingratitude, Kevorkian turned his back on him. Indeed, Dr. Death is emotionally about as cold as anyone I have ever met. He occasionally liked people who amused him or could engage in quick-witted repartee. His few long term friends tended to be blue-collar types who looked up to and revered "the doc."

But I came to believe he was incapable of having a healthy relationship with anybody. He bored easily, and throughout his life started projects and then discarded them before they really bore fruit. He did not really seem to care about anyone, or anything. In fact, in the end he sabotaged his own movement. After winning five full-length trials and gaining a mistrial in a sixth, prosecutors indicated they would stop charging Jack Kevorkian in assisted suicide deaths. He had made what he did de facto legal.

But he brought his whole house down, possibly because of what seems to be a self-destructive streak. He insisted on committing euthanasia, filming it, and rubbing the prosecutors' noses in it.

He said it was time to raise the stakes to a national debate on euthanasia. (With my help, he gave the tape to Mike Wallace, who showed it on 60 Minutes.) Privately, Kevo told me he hoped to be convicted and sent to jail. He felt the outraged reaction of his supporters would force the system to free him and allow euthanasia.

But he miscalculated badly. Attempting to represent himself, Kevorkian was swiftly convicted of second-degree murder.

Prisoners, as the prosecutor told me, usually don't get to hold press conferences. Many of his former supporters finally realized that Kevorkian was all about his own whims, not their needs.

He was swiftly forgotten. After Sept. 11, nobody talked much about voluntary suicide. Today, Kevorkian is what he was two decades ago, a near-forgotten crank in a run-down Royal Oak hotel, writing books few will read.

However, he did have a major impact on medicine, though one he probably never intended. Most of all, the hospice movement started getting serious funding and attention. It seemed an attractive alternative to death inhaling carbon monoxide in a rusty van.

Two states also now permit doctors — in some circumstances — to prescribe medication that allows terminally ill patients to put themselves out of their misery. Generally speaking, medicine is less callous. When my father was dying in 1993, in his 80s, I had to make a scene to get him more pain medication the day before he died. Thirteen years later, when my mother died in much the same way, the same hospital kept her completely comfortable without being asked. Kevorkian had something to do with that. Perhaps it is for these things that he should be remembered.

read more Jack Lessenberry



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