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Arts & Life

Prairie Village Surgeon Who Confronted Death Openly Is Subject Of New Documentary

Courtesy Aimee Larabee
A scene from 'Patient: A Surgeon's Journey'

The Hippocratic Oath that's guided doctors for centuries asks them to "remember that there is art to medicine as well as science." The late cardiac surgeon Jeffrey Piehler and Prairie Village filmmaker Aimee Larrabee shared that sentiment, and the result is her documentary Patient: A Surgeon's Journey, making its one-night local premiere October 1 at the Tivoli Cinema in Westport.


In 2005, Piehler was diagnosed with prostate cancer by Peter Van Veldhuizen, a colleague at the University of Kansas Medical Center who became Piehler's oncologist. When told he was "treatable but not curable," Piehler began intensive radiation therapy with what he calls an "awareness of my own frailty." 


Though stripped of any magical thinking about death or afterlife (he says he's always had a "contentious history with religion"), Piehler admits early in the film that he's grateful for the stark process he's undergoing: that of dying while living.


Larrabee is president of Inland Sea Productions, which specializes in creating documentary content.


"A group of Jeff's caretakers — oncologists and the oncology team — came together and said, 'Let's interview Jeff,' and that's when I came into the picture," Larrabee says. "Jeff and I agreed it would be wise to meet each other to see if there was a natural connection."


Their immediate chemistry led to eleven interviews over the course of several months.


"He was such a gifted communicator, so passionate about his message," Larrabee says. "We talked about the field of medicine, and art, family, and enjoying life. So it flowed very naturally."


Everyone understood that the project would not be scripted, Larrabee says. "He kept going deeper and further, knowing deep in his heart every step of the way if he said, 'Okay, I don't want to talk about this any more, you've had your last interview,'  I would respect that. As it turned out, he was able to watch the finished film." 


Before Piehler died on November 14, 2014, he struck up a profound friendship with local woodworker Peter Warren, who Piehler enlisted to help build his own coffin. Some viewers might find it a bit macabre to see Piehler lie down on the coffin's base for what can only be called a fitting and discuss such specifics as "nose clearance." But the movie isn't the least bit gruesome or creepy.


"We did spend a good deal of time with Jeff and Peter in Peter's studio," Larrabee recalls. "To me, they were so good together. Again, (Jeff) led by example. He showed how to talk to family and friends about subjects most of us are too afraid to talk about."


When the movie's been screened at film festivals in other cities, Larrabee says, she hears a recurring theme afterwards. 


"A consistent message I've heard is, 'I came home from the theater and my husband and I talked about death and mortality and we've never spoken about it before this.'"


Larrabee says that could be a catalyst for on-going conversations about the end of life.


"It's like he shaped the conversation for years to come for medical professionals, for patients and their families, and anyone who's not taken the step of advance directives, or speaking with loved ones about their wishes."


A question-and-answer panel about compassionate care, led by Van Veldhuizen, is scheduled to follow the October 1 screening.


"His openness was a gift to us," Larrabee says. "We as an audience are so fortunate that a mind like Jeff's had the knowledge of the human experience — thinking for all of us. He processed this information so beautifully for the rest of us."


Patient: A Surgeon's Journey, directed by Aimee Larabee, Thursday, October 1, 7:30 p.m., at the Tivoli Cinemas, 4050 Pennsylvania, Kansas City, Mo., 64111, 913-383-7756.