By Brienne Prusak , Managing News Editor
Published June 4, 2011
Jack Kevorkian — a doctor best known for his advocacy of assisted suicide — died of a blood clot on Friday at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan at the age of 83. Kevorkian was born and raised in Michigan and graduated from the University’s Medical School in 1952.
Members of the University community who had formerly worked with or met Kevorkian said that while they may not have agreed with his motives, they respected his steadfast beliefs and ability to challenge aspects of the American health care system.
Kevorkian, who was commonly known as “Dr. Death,” was sentenced with 10-to-25 years in prison in March 1999 after assisting in the suicides of at least 130 terminally ill patients throughout the 1990s. After Kevorkian’s release from prison in June 2007, he promised to never perform an assisted suicide again. However, he continued to advocate for the option while living out the remainder of his years in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University who met Kevorkian on several occasions, said Kevorkian “was a major historical figure in modern medicine.”
However, Markel said that while Kevorkian sparked conversation about suicide for those not necessarily struggling with mental health issues like depression, he might not have taken the right approach.
“(Kevorkian) sent the right message, if you believe that, but he was the wrong messenger,” Markel said.
As a person, Markel said Kevorkian was opinionated and “held his own” and because of this never doubted his personal veracity in his beliefs.
“I never questioned his integrity in what he believed in,” Markel said.
John Finn, medical director of palliative care at St. John’s Hospital and former executive medical director of Hospice of Michigan, knew Kevorkian and described the doctor as someone he respected despite the fact that he found him to be “a very bizarre man.”
“He’s not a man you can have a conversation with,” Finn said. “When you looked in his eyes, they were empty like black holes. You’d get a chill.”
Finn, however, credited Kevorkian with attempting to solve the problems of the American healthcare system, though he said he believes his methods were unjust.
“He identified the problem, which is physicians failing in their responsibilities to relieve suffering, but his methods were unorthodox and inappropriate,” he said.
He added that many of Kevorkian’s patients were isolated, lonely and potentially depressed and therefore in no state to mindfully choose whether to live or die. Throughout his career, Finn said he’s seen that people who are terminally ill usually want to live longer, so Kevorkian’s patients were atypical and with certain assistance may have chosen to live out their natural lives.
In a June 3 press conference, Geoffrey Fieger, Kevorkian’s lawyer for his trials throughout the 1990s, said that while others challenged Kevorkian’s motives, he stayed strong in his beliefs.
“When politicians and churchmen and medical societies asserted their claim that only they could make decisions for suffering and dying people, Dr. Jack Kevorkian had the strength of his own conviction to risk his own freedom, and at times, his own life for the rights of his patients,” Fieger said.
Fieger added that Kevorkian revolutionized the concept of suicide by working to help people end their own suffering because he believed physicians are responsible for alleviating the suffering of patients, even if that meant allowing patients to die.
“Dr. Jack Kevorkian didn’t seek out history, but he made history,” Fieger said.
Maria Silveira, professor of internal medicine, said she became involved with palliative care in part because of the attention Kevorkian brought to the complex issue of unintended suffering.
“(He) had a tremendous impact and fueled the public awareness of unintended suffering and the need to address it,” Silveira said.
Silveira added that the attention he received especially affected the legal code of Michigan and pushed legislators to make assisted suicide illegal in 1994 as well as lead to the development of the Michigan Advisory Committee on Pain and Symptom Management.
Peter Jacobson, professor of health law and policy in the School of Public Health, said he disagrees with the belief that Kevorkian greatly impacted the medical system. He said that in a time when debate over the issue was desperately needed, Kevorkian brought attention to himself rather than the patients who needed care.
“He deflected the important debate with the potentially criminal behavior of his actions,” Jacobson said. “Juries didn’t like how he went about his actions, but a lot of the people would like the choice (of what care they receive).”
Jacobson added that in a system where it is acceptable to aid patients in death, it is necessary to have checks in place — like two observing physicians and a more careful analysis of patients’ cases to see if their illnesses can be treated — in order to best serve the public.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.