Jeffrey Piehler, Prairie Village surgeon who sparked national end-of-life discussions with essay, dies at 67

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Dr. Jeffrey M. Piehler. Photo via jeffreypiehler.com.

Jeffrey Piehler, MD, the Prairie Village surgeon whose battle with prostate cancer became the focal point of national end-of-life discussions when he published an essay in the New York Times about his decision to build his own coffin, died Friday. He was 67.

Piehler was born in New York City and raised in Massachusetts before attending Williams College. After graduating there with highest honors, he went on to medical school at Cornell and additional training at the Darmouth-Hitchock Medical Center and the Mayo Clinic, where he gained a reputation as among the hardest working thoracic and cardiovascular surgeons. He spent six years on the staff of the Mayo Clinic before coming to Kansas City to join the Mid-America Heart Institute in 1986. For a time, he led the residency program in thoracic surgery at St. Luke’s Hospital. In 2000, Piehler moved his practice to the University of Kansas Hospital to focus exclusively on thoracic surgery, with special focus on patients who had advanced cancer. He also became a professor of surgery at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Piehler himself was diagnosed with cancer in 2002. Despite aggressive treatment, the disease persisted, with the side effects forcing his retirement from active surgery in 2005. As the cancer progressed to Stage 4, Piehler told his wife that he had decided to build his own coffin. “Creating something of beauty and purpose would be both a celebration of life and an acceptance of my death,” he wrote in the New York Times essay. “The project has smoothed the rough edges of my thoughts. It’s pretty much impossible to feel anger at someone for driving too slowly in front of you in traffic when you’ve just come from sanding your own coffin. Coveting material objects, holding on to old grudges, failing to pause and see the grace in strangers — all equally foolish. While the coffin is indeed a reminder of what awaits us all, its true message is to live every moment to its greatest potential.”

Piehler’s story is the subject of a new film, PATIENT, directed by Prairie Village resident Aimee Larrabee and produced by Fairway resident Tom Rooker. Rooker said he and Larrabee are working to schedule a showing of the film at STANDEES in the coming weeks. Rooker said production of the film was made possible by a number of Piehler’s colleagues at the University of Kansas Medical Center, who put together the funding for the project.

“While Dr. Piehler successfully extended his battle with the disease for almost 13 years, it’s his legacy we want to share with the community,” Rooker said.

A memorial service for Piehler is set for 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23 at Community Christian Church, 4601 Main St., Kansas City, Mo.