Wednesday, August 25, 2004
Times' obit for Kübler-Ross
In the later part of her career, she embarked on research to verify the existence of life after death, conducting, with others, thousands of interviews with people who recounted near-death experiences, particularly those declared clinically dead by medical authorities but who were then revived. Her prestige generated widespread interest in such research and attracted followers who considered her a saint.
But this work aroused deep skepticism in medical and scientific circles and damaged her reputation. Her claims that she had evidence of an afterlife saddened many of her colleagues, some of whom believed that she had abandoned rigorous science and had succumbed to her own fears of death.
A great teaching moment:
In 1962, she became a teaching fellow at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver. A small woman, who spoke with a heavy German accent and was shy, despite extraordinary inner self-confidence, she was highly nervous when asked to fill in for a popular professor and master lecturer. She found the medical students rude, paying her scant attention and talking to one another as she spoke.
But the hall became noticeably quieter when she brought out a 16-year-old patient who was dying of leukemia, and asked the students to interview her. Now it was they who seemed nervous. When she prodded them, they would ask the patient about her blood counts, chemotherapy or other clinical matters.
Finally, the teenager exploded in anger, and began posing her own questions: What was it like not to be able to dream about the high-school prom? Or going on a date? Or growing up? "Why," she demanded, "won't people tell you the truth?" When the lecture ended, many students had been moved to tears.
"Now you're acting like human beings, instead of scientists," Dr. Kübler-Ross said.
Her wisdom and tenacity paid off: "Her lectures began to draw standing-room-only audiences of medical and theology students, clergymen and social workers — but few doctors."
The real revolution, the one that occurred among physicians, started to take root in 1965 when
she became an assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Chicago Medical School, where a group of theology students approached her for help in studying death. She suggested a series of conversations with dying patients, who would be asked their thoughts and feelings; the patients would teach the professionals. At first, staff doctors objected.
The change in professional attitudes came slowly:
To bring public pressure for change in hospitals' treatment of the dying, she agreed to a request by Life magazine in 1965 to interview one of her seminar patients, Eva, who felt her doctors had treated her coldly and arrogantly. The Life article prompted one physician, encountering Dr. Kübler-Ross in a hospital corridor, to remark: "Are you looking for your next patient for publicity."
The hospital said it wanted not to be famous for its dying patients but rather for those it saved, and ordered its doctors not to cooperate further. The lecture hall for her next seminar was empty.
"Although humiliated," she said, "I knew they could not stop everything that had been put in motion by the press." The hospital switchboard was overwhelmed with calls in reaction to the Life article; mail piled up and she was invited to speak at other colleges and universities.
Not that this helped Eva much. Dr. Kübler-Ross said she looked in on her years later and found her lying naked on a hospital bed, unable to speak, with an overhead light glaring in her eyes. "She pressed my hand as a way of saying hello, and pointed her other hand up toward the ceiling. I turned the light off and asked a nurse to cover Eva. Unbelievably, the nurse hesitated, and asked, `Why?' " Dr. Kübler-Ross covered the patient herself. Eva died the next day.
"The way she died, cold and alone, was something I could not tolerate," Dr. Kübler-Ross said. Gradually, the medical profession came to accept her new approaches to treating the terminally ill.