Documentary film tells story of Prairie Village physician who built his own coffin; showing Saturday in KC Film Festival

PATIENTDr. Jeffrey Piehler made an impression on many people during his life, from his days in medical practice to his days of facing his own mortality. That circle will widen when a new documentary film about Piehler, the late Prairie Village thoracic surgeon who built his own coffin, is shown Saturday evening during the Kansas City Film Festival. “Patient – A Surgeon’s Journey” is the story of how Piehler’s life perspective changes when he faces his own mortality.

Piehler died in November 2014. He had been diagnosed with cancer in 2002. His essay in the New York Times about building his own coffin was a genesis for end-of-life discussions nationally. Among those he affected were his physicians and other caregivers at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Aimee Larrabee of Prairie Village, the film’s director, said a lecture Piehler gave to medical students inspired his fellow physicians to want the documentary made. Tom Rooker of Fairway is the executive producer and he connected the physician sponsors with Larrabee.

“I think what struck all of them was Jeff’s acceptance of mortality,” Larrabee said. She was able to film 11 interviews with Piehler, stretching from May until the week before his death last year. “I didn’t write a word,” Larrabee said, “(it was) all taking Jeff’s words.” Larrabee said she has hours of phenomenal footage, remarkable for Piehler’s “ability to articulate such powerful messages” in such clarity.

“It really changed my life,” Larrabee said of the documentary and her association with Piehler. She has been doing documentary filmmaking for more than 20 years. “I see myself as a journalist who is in documentary film.”

Rooker said the film was first screened at the Carmel Film Festival, and it was so powerful in its unfinished form they knew the message needed to get out. “We are very proud of it,” Rooker said. It has been shown to a group of Piehler’s family and friends and, Rooker said, Piehler was able to see it before his death.

Saturday marks the first public showing of the final version. It takes place at Cinemark on the Plaza at 5:10 p.m. Saturday. The film has a run time of 71 minutes and will be followed by a question and answer session. Larrabee, the supporting physicians and some of Piehler’s other caregivers will be on hand to talk.

Tickets are available, along with the trailer, through the film’s page on the festival site.