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Published: Friday, 10/16/2009

Jack Kevorkian's legacy was mostly unintended

LANSING - They are filming a few scenes in Michigan this week for the soon-to-be-shown HBO movie, You Don't Know Jack, about the apostle of assisted suicide, Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

I may see the movie, but I imagine it is bound to be an anticlimax, no matter how well Al Pacino and Susan Sarandon portray Dr. Death and his sidekick, Janet Good.

You see, I do know Jack. I covered the Kevorkian trials for the New York Times and other papers. I also had access to the defense team for the first trial, which I covered for Vanity Fair. I participated in the making of several news documentaries about the man and the issue.

I talked to Kevorkian, who told me he had assisted with something like 130 suicides, perhaps a hundred times between 1993 and 1999, when he managed to get sent away for second-degree murder. He ended up serving eight years. When he was sentenced, the suicide doctor winked at me and said,"Now I've got them right where I want them."

Wrong. Dr. Death, who was once the second most famous man in the country, had used up his 15 minutes of fame. Prisoners, as his prosecutor told me, don't usually get to hold press conferences.

During the eight years he was in prison, he was mostly forgotten. When he came out, it was to a different world. After 9/11, the idea of voluntary suicide didn't seem quite so fashionable.

Frankly, it took me a while to figure Jack Kevorkian out. Though he had a medical degree and had been a pathologist, he wasn't a doctor at all. He was a brilliant, if undisciplined, scientist who was fascinated by the transition from life to death.

Though his equally brilliant lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, helped coach him for his courtroom appearances, he had no authentic human warmth. He intellectually believed those who were hopelessly suffering should be allowed to end their lives with a physician's aid. I agreed with him then, and still do. However, he ruined his own movement and discredited himself by his reckless behavior. By 1998, Michigan had stopped prosecuting him for assisted suicide.

At least one other doctor began following in his footsteps. But Kevorkian then switched to euthanasia, taped himself doing it, and challenged the law. For good measure, he fired his lawyer, and tried to defend himself, making a mess.

I've seen Jack Kevorkian once since he got out. He said that I am "too objective" and he doesn't want to talk to me anymore. He's now 81, and spends most of his time reading and writing in a downscale Royal Oak apartment.

Ironically, he accomplished something for mankind that he most likely never intended. When he helped the first of his 130-odd patients die back in 1990, the medical community was too insensitive toward people in pain. There was almost no such thing as "end-of-life care," but Dr. Death changed that. And then the hospice movement was winning new support from government and private sources who saw it at least partly as an alternative to Jack Kevorkian.

Doctors became more sensitive to patients' needs. Now they are more likely to prescribe adequate pain medication.

The way most of us die is not very pleasant. Kevorkian's odd crusade to help speed that passage for a few ended up, ironically, making the end of life more comfortable for many more.

Perhaps, that's how he should be remembered.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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