Originally published on 6/3/11
Farewell to a Great Mind!: Dr. Jack Kevorkian (5/26/28-6/3/11)
Dr. Jack Kevorkian died this morning at around 2:30 EST of a pulmonary embolism, meaning a blood clot in his leg moved up to his heart and caused it to stop. It is said that it probably happened very quickly, that he died painlessly. His niece and his friend/lawyer were with him when he died. As things took a turn for the worst, the nurses were kind enough to play Bach (his favorite musician) for him. However, another friend of his lamented the fact that he had to die in a hospital, saying that if he had the strength, he would have insisted on going home to die.
Kevorkian, feeling weak, reluctantly agreed to go to the hospital on May 18, 2011. He had just been recovering from a previous hospital visit for a recurring kidney ailment. This time, however, he also had pneumonia. It was said that he wasn’t terminally ill and that he was in a regular hospital room, not in intensive care. However, he had lost about 20 pounds over the past month, resulting in a BMI of 15.8 (18.5 is the minimum norm). Even though it seemed that he was getting better and was supposed to go home “in a few days,” I had my doubts the longer he remained hospitalized. My suspicions began to be confirmed the other day when an article said that he was “weak” and “sleeping a lot, trying to get his strength back.” As of yesterday, he was “feeling better.” But I was still skeptical. There were simply too many things wrong with him, and I knew that, given his age, death could come to him (as the cliche goes), like a thief in the night.
As a young man, Kevorkian contracted hepatitis C while doing research about blood transfusions– on himself. It was a weaker strain of the virus, but enough to cause complications. Over the years it led to myriad health problems that he was somehow able to manage for as long as he did (I suspect because he lived on 500 calories a day, not putting so much strain on his body): liver problems, heart problems, diabetes, kidney problems, cataracts, arthritis, adrenal insufficiency, even brain lesions, and who the hell knows what else. The pneumonia that he developed was eventually in check, but he still felt weak, and even though there were plans for rehabilitation, I thought… “Even if he is able to go home and recover, he’s going to be back in the hospital before the end of the summer. And he won’t leave.” I still hoped for the best, however. I became a huge fan of his over the past two months and was planning on attending a book tour in the fall here in NYC and meeting him.
That will never happen.
How did this fandom start? How did Dr. Kevorkian make my ever-growing list of intellectual heroes, in some ways rivaling Richard Dawkins? Like many other things in my life, there was not a logical rhyme or reason for it but a weird chain of events that just happened. I was sort of interested in him last summer after seeing his biopic, You Don’t Know Jack. Then in early April of this year, I happened to spot a documentary about him on YouTube and watched it– right before going to sleep. That night I had an amusing dream in which my friend and I were on a road trip with him to San Francisco–and yes, we drove in a van. Kevorkian was doing the driving. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant where Kevorkian went temporarily blind. I told my friend, “I think you should drive the rest of the way.” Kevorkian also complained about the lack of universal healthcare and that he had to sell gems to pay for his health insurance (which is amusing since he did not care for luxuries). And we drove across a bridge a few feet wide to visit Alcatraz. The day after I had the dream I started looking up things about him online, watching interviews, and so forth. While I found him to be a bit bullheaded and abrasive and overly simplistic about certain issues at times (euthanasia wasn’t the only thing he championed), I found myself, more often than not, thinking, “That makes sense. And that makes sense. I never thought of that, but it makes sense. And that makes sense… And most people are stupid and don’t think” (but the latter I already suspected as much!).
Then I read all four of his books, one of which he published himself online for people to print out for free (Amendment IX: Our Cornucopia of Rights; its purpose was to educate about the Ninth Amendment and he did not think it ethical to make money off of it) and his biography. In 1991, he wrote a book called Prescription Medicide: The Goodness of a Planned Death which not only championed euthanasia for terminally ill patients but also advocated an option of medical experimentation and organ donation under heavy anesthesia before death. But a lot of people didn’t listen to him because it sounded too “grotesque.” I, however, would opt for all three if I were a suffering, terminally ill patient. Why shouldn’t positive things come out of my death for the living? While in prison, Kevorkian wrote GlimmerIQs (rhymes with “Limericks”), an anthology of his artwork, musical compositions, medical papers, and Limericks. Last year, he also wrote a book called When the People Bubble POPs, which, like many other things Kevorkian did, had a lot of good points but also oversimplified certain things. However, what I like the most about it is that it forces readers to think about the implications of another taboo subject– human overpopulation! I am seriously amazed at how offended and judgmental some people get if I bring up that topic, even on places like richarddawkins.net.
I found myself continually intrigued by this odd, fiercely independent man (and I began to think he had Asperger’s syndrome). He was a brilliant man– and I think he may have had an IQ well over genius level– who didn’t care what people thought of him, never backing down from his principles for better and for worse, and extremely honest, sometimes to fault (he never even lied in poker games). He was interested in everything. EVERYTHING! He not only was a pathologist and a writer, but he was also an artist. He created a lot of wonderfully disturbing paintings that commented on issues like death and the absurdity of war. He even made a feature-length film that never got distributed and he later described as “stupid.” In the ’80s, he hosted his own one-man show on public access television. He played the flute, organ, piano, and harpsichord and even released a jazz CD called A Very Still LIfe which has become a regular part of my rotation on my iPod. In high school, he taught himself Japanese and German to the point of fluency in a matter of months. He graduated from high school a year early and got into medical school before finishing his undergrad. He was also an engineer. He created a water bike in 1970 and, yes, it worked. He constantly pursued one project after another– art, music and, yes, the euthanasia campaign– with what his friends and family described as “tunnel vision.” He rarely dated, claimed to have never been in love, he never married, and never had children. He also lived alone and cheaply, buying all his clothes from thrift stores and, as stated earlier, living on about 500 calories per day. When he was in his 50s, he even lived out of his van for a while. Yes, he was like an old hippie in some ways.
I confess that I had tears in my eyes when I found out about Kevorkian’s death. These days, 83 seems a bit early to die. But at least he lived, and at least he made people think. As I said, I didn’t expect him to live through the summer, but I still held out hope that I would get to meet him at his book tour and give him a drawing of his funniest moments just as I did with Richard Dawkins (this will now have to take the form of a tribute that I will put online). I did, however, write him a letter in mid-April that basically said I was glad that he raised consciousness in America about taboos and forced people– including me– to think about certain issues they might have never otherwise thought about. I also enclosed a copy of my satire, The Menstruation Ban Trilogy. I will never know if he read the letter and my satire, and I suspect he probably didn’t because he apparently got swamped with mail all the time; somebody else handled his mail for him. Who knows what got forwarded to him and what didn’t? Even if he never saw it, I am still glad I at least thought to do it while he was still alive and (seemingly) well.
RIP Dr. Jack Kevorkian 1928-2011. Farewell to a great mind!