Why Jack Kevorkian had a profoundly correct message

Although Jack Kevorkian was only a few years older than I was, and we both practiced pathology in southern California for many of the same years, I never met Dr. Kevorkian.

I found him from a distance to be a deeply odd character, and a profoundly flawed messenger but with a profoundly correct message.

I can’t improve on the quick summary of Jack Kevorkian by an unnamed author that the New York Times issued on his date of reported death, June 3, 2011:

“Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the central figure in a tumultuous national drama surrounding assisted suicide, died Friday in Royal Oak, Mich., his lawyer told the Associated Press. He was 83 and had been hospitalized with pneumonia and a recurring kidney condition. Dr. Kevorkian, a medical pathologist who challenged social taboos about disease and dying, defied prosecutors and the courts to help terminally ill patients end their lives at times of their own choosing. He spent eight years in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder in the death of the last of the more than 100 patients whose suicides he assisted starting in 1990. His stubborn and often intemperate advocacy for the right of the terminally ill to choose how they die is widely credited with sparking a boom in hospice care in the United States, and with making physicians more sympathetic to their pain and more willing to prescribe medication to relieve it.”

Kevorkian’s work in assisted suicide closely followed the uproar that greeted my JAMA publication of the essay “It’s over Debbie” authored by “name withheld by request” on January 8, 1988.

This was a time when the American medical enterprise was very afraid to use opiates to treat pain in cancer and other terminally ill patients, concerned that they would addict, or would be accused of addicting, their desperate patients. And doctors and nurses practiced the notion that human life should be preserved and extended at any cost in suffering or money.

It took the Debbie case, the Kevorkian extreme actions, and yet other trailblazers who saw life and death through a different prism to move our society, ever so slowly, towards realizing that death is not the enemy; the enemies are premature death, disease, disability, pain, human suffering.

Death is normal. Every American deserves to have a death with dignity and as free from pain as possible, as can now happen with much hospice care.

Strange though he was, Jack Kevorkian helped us as a society to move a little closer to that ideal.

Let’s keep that trend line.

George Lundberg is a MedPage Today Editor-at-Large and former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Originally published in MedPage Today. Visit MedPageToday.com for more health policy news.

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