Doctor Death's Logic

Amid all the passions stirred by Dr. Jack Kevorkian's adovcacy pf physican-assisted suicide, a chance to rationally examine end-of-life issues is being wasted

April 04, 1999|By Stephen Vicchio

ON A WARM, muggy evening in August 1993, Thomas Hyde, a 30-year-old construction worker, along with his wife and 2-year-old daughter, sat inside a battered and rusted 1968 Volkswagen bus parked behind an apartment complex in Royal Oak, a suburb of Detroit. Hyde suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease. He had come to Royal Oak for one purpose: to end his life with the help of the VW's owner, Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

After fitting an oxygen mask over Hyde's head, Kevorkian connected the tubing leading from the mask to a small cylinder of carbon monoxide. Halfway down the tubing, Kevorkian had placed a paper clip that crimped the line, preventing the deadly flow of gas. To the paper clip, Kevorkian, a retired pathologist, had attached a string that he handed to Hyde. A moment later, after saying goodbye to his wife and daughter, Hyde pulled loose the paper clip, breathed the carbon monoxide and died.

Thomas Hyde was the 20th person to receive such assistance from Kevorkian.

Since the summer of 1993, the pathologist has helped another 110 people end their lives. The most recent of those deaths, was different. On Sept. 17, Kevorkian administered lethal drugs through an IV to Thomas Youk, a 52-year-old accountant who also was suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. This was the first known case in which Kevorkian was the direct cause of death for one of his "patients." The death scene was videotaped by the pathologist and shown on "60 Minutes" during the important final week of November "sweeps," when viewer levels are measured to set advertising rates. Nielsen Media Research reported that an estimated 15.6 million households tuned in to the death, the highest numbers for the show this season.

It is undeniable that all of Kevorkian's approximately 130 "patients" have gone gently, but it is less clear if they, and Kevorkian, have done the morally right thing in these sorrowful cases.

It is even less clear if Kevorkian has had the motives he professes in helping others into what Henry James aptly called "The Great Perhaps."

Although he claims a staunch altruism with respect to the suffering of the terminally ill, as well as a reverence for the autonomy of the individual, one might well conclude that Kevorkian has had a bizarre and unhealthy interest in death and the newly dead.

Kevorkian's strange fascination with the dead stretches back to his early medical training in Michigan.

Kevorkian was first called "Dr. Death" while a resident at the Detroit Receiving Hospital. There, in 1956, he began photographing the retinas of patients at the moment of death. He set up his camera equipment and waited, calling the process his "death rounds." A few years earlier, in 1953, Kevorkian had been dismissed from the University of Michigan pathology residency because of his proposal that death-row inmates be used for medical experiments. Instead of executing inmates, Kevorkian called for rendering them unconscious while the experimentation took place. Death would come after the research was complete and the inmates' bodies were no longer useful.

In 1959, at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Kevorkian testified before a joint judiciary committee in Columbus, Ohio. The pathologist urged Ohio to revamp its capital punishment laws so "valuable medical experiments" might be performed on the condemned.

In the 1960s, Kevorkian developed an interest in oil painting. About three years ago, he displayed 13 of his works in a gala event in Royal Oak that drew hundreds of his supporters. His artworks included depictions of decaying bodies, swastikas, hollow-eyed skulls and Santa stomping on baby Jesus.

Kevorkian told Sun reporter Lisa Pollak, who attended the event, that he did not consider himself an artist. "I consider myself a cartoonist in oils," he explained, adding, "I call them pictorial philosophy, not art. Technically, it's not great art. But within limits, I'm proud of it."

In one of his works, titled "Genocide," Turkish and German soldiers hold a severed head by the hair. Kevorkian told Pollak that the painting depicted the horrors of war.

"For Kevorkian, whose family is Armenian, the painting represents both the persecution of Jews by Nazis and of Armenians by Turks. Kevorkian drew his own blood to stain the painting's barbed wire frame," Pollak wrote.

Geoffrey Feiger, the flamboyant lawyer who served as Kevorkian's spokesman, stage manager and confidant, described the artworks as "social commentary" meant for "the ages."

Kevorkian explained his gruesome handiwork this way:

"I pick subjects that are generally considered unpleasant because these are all parts of life that I think we should look at and think about. I only paint what is. I don't paint what I think should be."

Grisly mosaic

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