Assisted Suicide Advocate Jack Kevorkian of Royal Oak Dies at 83
Longtime resident was a lightning rod for controversy and a familiar face around town.
Assisted suicide advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian of Royal Oak died at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak this morning after being hospitalized with kidney, liver and respiratory problems off and on for several weeks. He was 83.
Kevorkian first made headlines for his right-to-die stand in 1990 when he assisted in the death of Janet Adkins, who had Alzheimer’s disease. The former pathologist admitted to assisting in an estimated 130 deaths from 1990-98.
More recently, he served eight years of a 10- to 25-year sentence in the 1998 death of Thomas Youk, who suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease. He was released from prison in 2007 and returned to live in an apartment in Royal Oak, where he was frequently seen at his favorite restaurants and shops.
Kevorkian's niece, Ava Janus, of Troy, said she was by her uncle's side during a brief recovery at Beaumont and when his health began to fail. The downturn of her uncle's condition came as a shock to him and the family, she said.
"He was very aware of what was happening," Janus said. In his final days, her uncle made his final wishes with his attorney.
"I'm going to miss him," Janus said. "From his perspective, I'm glad he is gone, it didn't take very long and he didn't have to suffer. That's what he wanted for himself and anyone in pain."
Memorial services hadn't been finalized, family said Friday evening.
Kevorkian's attorney, Mayer Morganroth, didn't return calls for comment Friday.
'A selfless hero'
"He embodied the true American spirit of doing what's right regardless of cost to himself," Clawson resident Kimberly Middlewood said after hearing the news of Kevorkian's death. "I hope he is remembered as a selfless hero who served eight years in prison as the result of ending suffering."
Not everyone agree with Kevorkian's ideas, let alone his methods.
When Kevorkian was released from prison, he vowed not to assist in any more deaths. Still, the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization took the opportunity to restate its position on end of life care, saying:
As an organization, NHPCO does not support Kevorkian’s methods or practices. The organization does recognize the role he played in bringing debate about end of life issues to national attention. Kevorkian was intent on finding a better way to relieve suffering at the end of life. NHPCO believes that quality hospice and palliative care services can meet the needs of patients and their families that are dealing with the challenges of life-limiting illness.
Yet Kevorkian had a positive and a negative impact on the discussion about hospice and end of life care, said Deanee Mauser, the administrative director of Beaumont Home Care and Hospice and a registered nurse.
"He raised awareness of end of life issues," she said. "For some people the lines were blurred. They thought hospice was assisted suicide ... We have had people call and ask for physician-assisted suicide."
Hospice provides end of life care, including managing pain, anywhere the patient resides – including at home or in the hospital – if the patient or family requests it and the cases meets certain criteria.
"We did not receive a referral for Dr. Kevorkian," Mauser said.
Fieger remembers favored client
Attorney Geoffrey Fieger, of Bloomfield Hills, defended Kevorkian through seven murder cases, six of which went to trial. He held a press conference at his Southfield office this morning and gave an emotional tribute to Kevorkian.
"Through his courage and determination he shined a light on a right that I believe, he believed, and I think most of us believe that we hold innately, that tens and thousands of people now are no longer abandoned to suffer until dead because of his convictions and his courage," Fieger said.
"I personally will miss him."
Resident shakes up Royal Oak
Royal Oak resident John Schultz remembers sharing a wall with Kevorkian in downtown Royal Oak when Schultz was an editor for the Royal Oak Mirror.
Kervorian lived in an apartment building on Main Street that was between Mr. B's and the building at Third and Main, said Schultz, now the managing editor at DBusiness magazine based in Royal Oak. "The Mirror offices were in that building and my office and Jack's apartment shared a wall," he said. "I would hear Jack in his apartment doing dishes or moving around, playing flute, etc. We would run into each other occasionally in the adjoining entrance. We would chat, but he never would discuss what he called 'his business.'
"One night I worked late to around 3 a.m. on page proofs for The Mirror. I went home for a couple hours of sleep before the printer came the next morning. I came downtown to the office around 8 a.m. and the place was surrounded with media trucks and reporters from all over.
"I asked what was going on and found out Dr. Kevorkian had performed an assisted suicide the night before – and I was three feet and a wall away working on the page proofs and didn't hear a thing!"
It was the first assisted suicide in Kevorkian's apartment, noted Schultz, also the co-author of Images of America: Royal Oak. The previous assisted deaths were performed in Kevorkian's van. "From that point, downtown Royal Oak was a buzz with folks wanting to get a glimpse of him or his apartment," Schultz said.
The apartment building was torn down a couple years later for Mr. B's to expand.
'You Don't Know Jack'
Kevorkian returned to the public eye again a couple of years ago when HBO made the movie You Don’t Know Jack about the former pathologist's crusade for what he called the right to a dignified death for the terminally ill and suffering. It aired on HBO in April 2010.
Actor Al Pacino, who played Kevorkian in the movie, paid homage to Kevorkian when he won an Emmy for the role in August. "To have had the pleasure to try to portray someone as brillant and interesting and unique as Dr. Jack Kevorkian … Thank you Jack!" Pacino said in his acceptance speech at the Emmy awards, at which Kevorkian was a guest.
Reporter's tale: 'I think he viewed himself as a martyr'
Steve Huber is a 54-year-old former reporter who covered Kevorkian. He said Friday that he remembers meeting Kevorkian in 1990 as the retired pathologist was just starting his crusade for assisted suicide.
Huber, now the marketing and communications officer for Oakland County who lives in Grand Blanc, was covering a trial for which a quadriplegic was trying to get a court order to end his life. The man, David Rivlin, said he had been contacted by Kevorkian.
Huber met with Kevorkian at a Chinese restaurant. “He just seemed to be a quirky old dude who had some radical ideas,” Huber recalled.
That initial meeting soon led to one of the most fascinating stories Huber ever covered.
A reporter at the Oakland Press for 18 years, Huber covered all of the trials that led to Kevorkian’s 10- to 25-year sentence for second-degree murder.
“I recall when he was actually convicted,” Huber said. “His sister was in the courtroom and I was sitting behind her. She looked stunned.”
Huber described Kevorkian as belligerent. “He wasn’t rude or anything like that, but when you got him talking, he had strong opinions about law and medicine and how he always referred to people being in the dark ages,” he said. “I think he viewed himself as a martyr.”
Besides the trial that led to his conviction, Kevorkian was charged four other times, which resulted in three acquittals and a mistrial. For the last trial, Kevorkian decided to represent himself. Therefore, it was no surprise that he lost, Huber said.
“He thought he could get through it just because he was Jack Kevorkian,” Huber said. “He believed he was right. There are a lot of legal barriers, and he was not equipped to handle that.”
– Lara Mossa and Kevin Elliott contributed to this report.