A FACE-TO-FACE WITH A DEFIANT DR. DEATH

He wore a pale blue suit over his small, thin body, and the skin on his face seemed pulled so tight his eyes bulged. Those eyes rarely blink, and they lock on when you disagree with him. He may be 79. But after eight years in jail, Jack Kevorkian still is ready for a fight.

And he is not sorry.

“If I were sorry, I’d be a hypocrite,” he said.

By his own estimate, Kevorkian, who was released recently, helped at least 130 people die, hooking them to machines that delivered lethal drugs or gases, then allowing them to, essentially, throw their own switch.

He became the focal point of a person’s right to die. He flouted the law because he felt it unjust. He went to jail on a second-degree murder charge, after injecting poison into a patient. “I wanted the imprisonment,” he told me. He wanted to change the rules.

So far, the rules are still mostly there (except in Oregon). Americans are split on the idea of physician-assisted suicide. A recent Associated Press poll showed 48% approved the idea, while 44% did not.

But having known or met many people with terminal illnesses, I understand why human beings want the right to say – for themselves – enough suffering is enough.

So when Kevorkian sat down across from me, I was ready to empathize with his compassion for the sick.

I was not ready for the man himself.

His cruel, cruel world

Are you at all religious, I asked him?

“Religion is all bunk. … If you’re really religious, you can’t think for yourself.”

Would you call yourself an atheist?

“Agnostic.”

What do you think happens when we die?

“You stink. You rot and stink.”

No soul?

He laughed. “What’s a soul?”

How did you feel the first time you watched someone die by your machine, a 54-year-old woman who had Alzheimer’s?

“Relieved. For her sake and mine.”

Did you feel you crossed a line?

“I had the honor of having reached a status in the practice of medicine that would have pleased Hippocrates.”

But doesn’t the Hippocratic oath call for doing anything required to help the sick?

“Of course. But that’s not my job. It’s her clinician’s job. They gave up.”

But isn’t there a difference between something untreatable and helping someone die?

He voice rose in pitch. “I’m not gonna help you die – I’m gonna end your suffering!”

At that moment, with his face contorted in disgust, I couldn’t imagine a suffering so bad that I would want Kevorkian to be the last person I’d see on Earth.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of sadness

He denied familiar charges: that he didn’t always have thorough medical information on his patients (“If the doctors would have talked to me, it would have made it easier. Blame them”); that he didn’t do enough to dissuade suicidal thoughts (“I turned away four or five for every one I helped”).

He likened what he had done to a doctor who had to cut off a patient’s leg to get rid of cancer. “Unfortunately, the patient must lose a life to end the suffering.”

As we spoke, I heard intelligence, self-assurance, even arrogance. What I didn’t hear was humanity. He didn’t seem to think much of the human race. He likened life to “a tragedy.” He quoted famous people saying they wouldn’t bring babies into this world. When I said that would wipe out mankind, he said, “What’s wrong with that?”

I began to sense a man who was more interested in death than life. Death was his academic passion, and sick patients were part of that academic pursuit, like lab rats.

Is there a meaning to our lives? I asked.

“No,” he said.

Was he happy? “I don’t expect the object of life is happiness. That’s why I’m happy.”

Set the bar low, in other words?

“That’s the way to go,” he said.

I don’t know what’s the way to go. But after an hour, I knew I wouldn’t want to go via Jack Kevorkian, a man for whom the world is bleak, happiness is rare, belief is a waste of time and life is a finite, meaningless entity. The act he champions may indeed be one of compassion, but how can it be delivered by such a cold, cold heart?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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