Very ill man is too busy living to call Kevorkian

DAN RODRICKS

March 27, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Jack Kevorkian, the suicide doctor, supposedly has little difficulty finding prospective patients, but Louis Coleman of Baltimore won't be one of them. I've grilled Louis on this twice, and he doesn't budge. In fact, he's so committed to living that he got married last weekend -- on the first day of spring -- and he talks about fishing this summer.

"I don't think about dying," he says. "I stay focused on my treatment. My doctor doesn't tell me how long I have to live. I don't ask him. We don't talk about that. We talk about treatment. . . . I don't feel I'm stretching out my death; I'm stretching out my life."

He's 30 years old and lives in West Baltimore with his longtime companion and wife of one week, Jennifer. They have three boys -- ages 10, 6 and 3.

Jennifer and Louis have known each other since they were kids and have lived together for years. "I still love him like I did in high school," she says.

Last summer, they started talking about getting married. When Louis' pelvic cancer was diagnosed in October at Sinai Hospital, they pushed up the clock. The wedding was held last Saturday afternoon at White Stone Baptist Church.

"I thought about it," Louis says, when he's asked about suicide and Kevorkian.

When?

"When my doctor told me how serious it was, that I had cancer. I had gone to the hospital for a kidney stone and they took X-rays and they found the tumors. . . . I looked out the window of the hospital and thought about jumping out of it. I cried. I laid down and cried, and I started thinking. Thinking about Jennifer. Thinking about my kids. I spent a couple of hours thinking about it. Thinking about the problems I would leave. I thought that I would leave the same thing my sister left -- a lot of pain."

Louis Coleman's sister took her own life 10 years ago; she had been depressed for a long time.

"I'm the one who seen the body," Louis says. "She hurt a lot of people. I was very angry. . . .

"See, I'm sick, I know it, but you still have to deal with life. The Lord is going to take you when he wants you to go, not when you want to go."

Louis Coleman thinks Jack Kevorkian should be stopped from assisting terminally ill patients with suicide. "A doctor should help you stop the pain," Louis says, "make you as comfortable as he can."

If you believe, as I do, that men and women are not of a rational mind when they opt for suicide -- that some disease or trauma is pulling them into the darkness -- then a doctor's duty is to save them from themselves.

"Society should protect people in that state of mind," Louis says.

Physician-assisted suicide comes perilously close to homicide; it not only stretches the concept of mercy, it twists it into something grotesque. It ends all possibilities. It diminishes and trivializes the hard sweat of health-providers devoted to saving and lengthening lives.

And yet, I know that Kevorkian, this free-lance suicide doc, enjoys considerable support. A lot of what he says -- in particular, his condemnation of how other doctors, practicing conventional medicine, treat terminally ill patients -- strikes a chord. It forces everyone to consider their own mortality in the age of modern medicine. The fact that it is possible to live a long time with a terminal illness today compounds a complicated and emotionally charged dilemma that thousands of patients and their families face.

Kevorkian wants to make it all simple again.

More than anything else, Kevorkian's emergence is related to the

national disillusionment with the health care industry.

I knew none of his patients, but I suspect that, in addition to fearing a prolonged and painful death, most of them feared the lonely isolation of hospitals and the prospect of doctors keeping them alive with expensive, high-tech treatments and drugs. They were probably worried about bequeathing their families huge medical bills.

Maybe if terminally ill patients had more confidence in health care in the United States -- if it was more accessible and affordable for more people, if physicians, hospitals and other providers were liberated from bottom-line bondage -- patients would not find the Kevorkian Alternative so attractive.

There are, after all, other choices. Hospice care, for one.

That is what Louis Coleman has been receiving through Sinai. It keeps him at home and involves his family in his treatment. The Sinai program stresses "comfort, dignity and peace," through a network of nurses, home health aides and social workers who regularly visit their patients. It's much less expensive than hospital treatment, too. Suicide is not in the treatment plan.

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