Sunday, June 26, 2011

June 2011: Dr. Jack Kevorkian

June 3, 2011:  Dr. Jack Kevorkian passed away today. 

Jack Kevorkian was Armenian.  He was born Hagop Kevorkian on May 26, 1928.  Hagop was the second child and only son of Levon and Satening Kevorkian.  His father left his home village of Passen near Erzeroum in 1912 before the Armenian Genocide of 1915.  His mother was, like many Armenians in the Detroit area, from Govdun, a village near Sepastia.  She survived the Genocde and made her way to the US.  Detroit was a draw for the immigrant Armenians because of the abundance of jobs in the automotive industry.   The family lived in Pontiac, Michigan.  In those days, it was not considered part of metropolitan Detroit as it is today.

Jack, as Hagop become known, graduated from Pontiac Central High School in 1945.  He went to the University of Michigan for both his undergraduate work and then medical degree in 1952.  He embarked on a career as a pathologist.  Even early in his career, Jack was interested in the end of life doing experiments on transfusing cadaver blood in humans.  He probably got the hepatitis that caused his liver cancer from transfusing the cadaver blood into himself.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian became famous or notorious for his interest and action in euthanasia.  He was called Dr. Death because of this assistance in helping terminally ill people end their own lives.  His trials for second degree murder, his convictions,  and time in prison were front page news when they were happening. 

June 6:  Armenians were never sure if we should be proud or ashamed of him.  There was no problem acknowledging his Armenian heritage and most of us tried to give him the benefit of doubt and understand what he was trying to do.  At the same time, we would try to reconcile any Armenian being an advocate for euthanasia.  Dr. Jack was, after all, the son of a genocide survivors.   Life was supposed to be precious to us.  We proudly claim to be the first Christian nation and his work certainly crossed some ethical lines in this regard.

Personally, I could see both sides.  I can see that if someone is suffering, unable to care for themselves, and costing their families or society thousands of dollars a day, they might want to end their life.  I also see the preciousness of life.  I believe that the hospice movement has the right middle ground.

My grandmother, Azniv Frankian Merian, was in St. Mary’s in Livonia back in the mid-1990s.  She was probably 90 years old at time.  She came out of surgery and was in her room.  A priest or nun, I do not recall, came to see here and she said, “you know that I am Armenian, you know, like Dr. Jack Kevorkian.  I bet you don’t let him in here.”  She had to have that trademark glint her eye.

Back in the 1960s, the Detroit Armenians of the St. Sarkis community built a new church in Dearborn. MI.  It was a very exciting time.  The generation of Jack Kevorkian built the church and they were energized to move the church and the community forward.  They formed a Men’s Club.  The Men’s Club decided to have monthly dinner and have guest speakers of interest from business, sports, and wherever Armenians were making their mark.  Sometimes the dinners were father and son events.  I enjoyed going with my Dad.  It was being part of a fraternity and being part of the adult world.

I remember two of these events distinctly.  At one of them, an executive at the Ford Design Center spoke.  He gave us insights at the world of concept car design as well the process of taking a concept to actual production vehicle.  It was fascinating.  I decided to ask whether they considered aerodynamics in their designs but I was too young or too nervous to actually use the word aerodynamics.  I felt a little stupid even though I knew it was a good question and something I was curious about.  The speaker told us that they really did not consider aerodynamics in their designs.  I remember thinking that they probably should.  This was a few decades before it seemed every car ad from every carmaker showed footage of a car in a windtunnel.

The other speaker I remember was Dr. Jack Kevorkian.  I want to say that at the time he spoke he was either the Wayne or Oakland County Coroner or Medical Examiner.  I tried to verify this but all of the articles about Kevorkian talked only about his assisted suicide/euthanasia work and his conviction.  There were very few references to his earlier positions.  He was always fascinated with death.  At the time he spoke, I never knew what a coroner or medical examiner did.  They may have featured such on television crime dramas but those were not shows I was watching in those days.  It was also a few years before the Jack Klugman series, Quincy ME, about a medical examiner.

I recall Dr. Jack Kevorkian was an engaging and interesting speaker.  He talked about his job and shared amazing facts about the human body.  He was an energetic speaker bordering on the nervous.   I became more interested in biology and medical sciences because of his speech.  Up until then, I was more interested in physics and aeronautical engineering primarily because of the US Space Program and the Race to the Moon which was in full swing at the time.

June 15:  I never gave another thought to Dr. Jack Kevorkian until he became newsworthy in the 1990s.  Even then I did not immediately remember it was the fellow I heard speak at St. Sarkis twenty or twenty-five years earlier.  It wasn’t until I actually heard him speak on a news broadcast that I put two and two together.

So what do I think about Jack Kevorkian and his legacy?  I am not so much for euthanasia.  Life is precious.  The end of life can be very difficult and painful to deal with.  As mentioned earlier, I think I am more prone to what the hospice movement does.  Their goal is make each day a good day for their patients.  They help manage the pain and try as much as possible to have their patients stay at home.  It is infinitely better than being in a hospital connected to machines.  I thought it was a very good thing for my Uncle Azad. He had lung cancer and they made his last days as good as possible.  He died at home and given the grave end game of his disease, he had a decent quality of life in his last year always until the last week.

I also believe that the Genocide strongly influenced Dr. Jack Kevorkian.  I believe he was, in some way, trying to give some control to people of how and when they die.  When I learned that Jack Kevorkian was also an artist, I was curious about his paintings.  When I saw them, I was pretty convinced of my Genocide influencing him theory.  His art is obsessed with death.  But, don’t take my word for it.      
One does not have to be trained psychologist, psychotherapist, or art historian to see the theme that runs through a great majority of his art.  The man was heavily impacted by both death and man’s inhumanity to man.  I can only imagine that the travails of his parents influenced Jack from his youngest days.
I did not know that Jack Kevorkian was an artist and musician until the past few years.   I found out only because the HBO docudrama on him, You Don’t Know Jack, starring Al Pacino as the famed Dr.  In tandem there was a documentary on Dr. Kevorkian that seemed to have run simultaneously.  The documentary featured a showing of Dr. Kevorkian’s art at an Armenian Church in California.  The subjects and nature of the paintings had a great impact on me.

The docudrama starring Pacino was heavily hyped.  I watched it when it first aired and then watched it a second time.  It was well done and had seasoned stars with Brenda Vaccaro as Dr. Jack’s sister and Susan Sarandon and John Goodman as his friends.  I expected something more from the movie and I was not sure what.  It just seemed a little reserved to me as if something was missing.   The aforementioned documentary revealing the Doctor’s artwork provided the missing pieces for me.

A lot has been made of Dr. Kevorkian opting for a natural passing rather than taking his own life as he advocated for and helped others do.  He had a terminal illness and yet chose to let it run it’s course.  I guess he was advocating “pro-choice” and he made his own decision.  Should he have taken his own life to have made a point?  Does it matter?  There was a cartoon in the Sunday June 5, 2011 New York Times of Dr. Kevorkina at the Peraly Gates.  St. Peter asked him a one word question, “Unassisted?”  The cartoon was the work of Jeff Stahler of the Columbus Dispatch:

There was a movie that starred Charleton Heston and Edward G. Robinson.  It was called Soylent Green.  The future as depicted in this 1973 movie had many disturbing practices and a grim prediction of the future as were many movies of that era of The Generation Gap and the divisive Vietnam War.  One of the practices that was in place in this future United States was encouraging older people to commit suicide, state assisted suicide.  The suicides took place in beautiful facilities with what was the equivalent of Imax like videos of the most beautiful nature scenes as the elder slowly and beautifully died.   The Edward G. Robinson character was supposed to die alone but died in the presence of the Charleton Heston character.

As beautiful as the death chamber was depicted, it was still a death chamber.  It was supposed to be offensive and I definitely took it as such.   Such movies of that era were to make us suspicious of the government or Big Brother.  We should be very careful as too how much power and leeway “they” have over us.  One of the messages in Soylent Green is that if are not careful the government could end up promoting assisted suicides at the end of life.  The real fear is that promoting or encouraging assisted suicides is a fine line away from mandating assisted suicides i.e. deciding who should live and who should die.   This is the scary part of going down the Kevorkian path. 

When President Obama and Nancy Pelosi were promoting their health care legislation a few years ago, there was an interesting scare tactic used by the opposition.  There were serious discussions around the very high costs associated with the very end of life care.   The basic point was that thousands upon thousands of dollars are spent to on patients that are clearly dying.  The expense is disproportionate to both the extra time a patient may live and the quality of life the patient might experience during that time.  While such debates may be realistic, it is easy for many to be leery of the kind of life decision the government and insurance companies might have over us.  It was easy to see that a price was being put on life.  If the price benefit ratio is not high enough, the expenditure would be denied and the patient in question would naturally expire.  This quickly translated into “Obama Care will decide who lives and dies.”

Certainly Dr. Kevorkian was strongly committed to his beliefs and worked passionately to realize his vision.  I believe that his views were strongly influenced by what his parents lived through.  In my view, I just don’t think it is right and there are more compassionate ways of managing the very real issues that Dr. Kevorkian, minimally, got us all thinking about.

The August 2, 2010 New Yorker had a brilliant article on how we should approach the end of life.  The article advocated hospice as the most humane and dignified alternative.

June 25:  I was grading final exams for a statistics course I was teaching.  I took a break and flipped on the TV.  You Don’t Know Jack was on one the several HBO channels.  I watched it.  It was very close to the end which is the trial that led to Dr. Kevorkian’s conviction and jail sentence.  Dr. Kevorkian was on trial for assisting in the suicide of a very ill patient.  At one point, the prosecution likened what Dr. Kevorkian did and was advocating to the Nazis and genocide.  Dr. Kevorkian flipped out.  He went ballistic and kept bellowing “How dare you!?!”

How did I miss this in my first viewing of this docudrama?  The prosecutor accused Dr. Kevorkian of advocating something that could lead to genocide.  He accused an Armenian of this.  He accused an Armenian raised by genocide survivors and obsessed with death of this.  The prosecutor was either lucky to hit a nerve or an amazingly good tactician.

I certainly did not know Jack, but I believe I understood a bit of what moved him to the position and actions that defined him.


  1. He was not born Hagop Kevorkian. His given name was Jacob, and at home his parents called him Murad. But it was not Hagop. Anyway, go to my blog for my Kevorkian tribute!:

  2. Uh... I can't remember what Jacob is in Armenian. Someone, please, refresh my memory.

    I do stand corrected and I did not know about the good Dr. being called Murad at home.

    Thanks for the comment. Your blog on Dr. Kevorkian is very good and I recommend it. I would also read the following on

  3. From Zaven Tokatlian:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the late Dr. Kevorkian. I too am very ambivalent about his achievements and his legacy. He was a conflicted man and in trying to exorcise his demons he became a cause macabre. He was haunted by genocide - as his paintings amply attest - a tragedy which is the bane of so many, but at last Kevorkian is at peace.

    Night after day, port after stormy seas
    Death after life, doth greatly please

    Requiescat in Pacem!

  4. I agree with your thoughts. He was not a monster.

    I thought it ironic at first, that he died in a hospital, but it was his choice and that is what he was always about..."choice.

    Both my mother and father died at home with Hospice, and family around them. My cousin whose body was wracked with MS, decided when it was time to let go, and refused food (or nutritional sustenance, and took water only until the end.). He also, died at home with Hospice and family. It is a choice...