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Doctors are doing far better with pain management thanks to Jack Kevorkian

Jan 7, 2015

I will be sixty-three years old in three months, and this was the first morning since I was three that I woke up and John Dingell wasn’t a member of Congress.

If you think that’s amazing, Queen Elizabeth II was on the throne when I was born, and she is still there.

Some of us have almost unbelievably long lives and careers, but nothing lasts forever. We are only years away from an overwhelming demographic crisis.

My fellow baby boomers, members of the largest age cohort in history, will start dying.

The oldest of us turns seventy next year. We are going to start checking out in earnest, and first, most of us are going to be get feeble, sick and old.

And that is going to run up medical bills like you can’t imagine. A few of us will die quietly in our sleep, or suddenly of a heart attack. But for most, it will take much longer.

I thought of this yesterday, when I spent the morning with a film crew doing a short movie about Jack Kevorkian. I covered much of what Kevorkian did twenty years ago, and probably knew him better than any other journalist.

Credit UCLA

The interviewer mostly asked the usual questions about Kevorkian and what he did. But she then asked if I thought there would be a resurgence of the issues he raised.

I said that when it comes to allowing people to choose to end their lives rather than endure long-term suffering, we probably ain’t seen nothing yet. Kevorkian, once a familiar face on the cover of magazines like Time, is half forgotten now.

Twenty-five years ago this spring, he helped a woman with early Alzheimer’s end her life in the back of his old Volkswagen van. A hundred and thirty more would follow, till he was convicted of second degree murder.

Kevorkian did his time, got out, and then died.

We remember him, if at all, as sort of a bizarre crank, who ran around with a suicide machine and a tank of carbon monoxide, leaving bodies in hotel rooms and hospital parking lots.

Kevorkian was, indeed, obsessed with death. He was famous for bizarre costumes and blunt statements. But he also raised some major issues. There’s been significant progress on one.

Many doctors were surprisingly callous to patient suffering twenty years ago, and the medical establishment did little to prepare people for the inevitable, except try to keep them alive.

Thanks in part to Kevorkian, doctors are doing far better with pain management. Humane hospice care has become a standard part of medical services.

Yet medicine still can and does prolong existence long past any quality of life. Many are still trapped in bodies or with conditions that make their lives unbearable.

They want the right to end it.

Kevorkian told me once that assisted suicide would become the norm for the wrong reasons. Baby boomers far outnumber the two generations that followed them.

With his usual tact, Kevorkian asked me if I thought younger generations would be willing to pay most of their salaries to keep me and my generation alive and hooked up to machines.

Jack Kevorkian may have been the wrong messenger. But you can bet we haven’t heard the last of his message.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.