A cancer patient gets her final wish Yet to be granted: legal euthanasia

October 01, 1993|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Staff Writer

A caption yesterday misspelled the name of Janis Greenhood, who died Wednesday of cancer.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

Janis Greenhood hoped to be dead before you read this sentence.

She got her wish.

Late Wednesday afternoon, she died in her bed at age 77, succumbing to internal bleeding in her diseased colon. It is what she wanted, to deprive the cancer of its full measure of punishment. She went sooner rather than later.


Fearing a long, agonizing decline, Mrs. Greenhood had called The Sun a week earlier, hoping to publicize her plea for legislation legalizing euthanasia for suffering, terminally ill patients like herself. "I'm not afraid of dying," she said repeatedly. "I'm afraid of living."

A good-humored woman with a head of faded, curly red hair, she received a reporter at her bedside Friday and again Monday to make her case. Both days, she wore a white nightgown covered with red butterflies. On Wednesday she spoke again by phone. Four hours earlier she had taken a morphine tablet for the first time to blunt the pain in her stomach. She sounded woozy over the phone, but she was coherent.

"They put a horse to death when it breaks its leg," she said. "They do that to end its suffering. I'm suffering, too. Why should a horse have an advantage over the human race?"

Within four hours, she was dead.

She had dreaded living as much as four more months -- a sentence of ever-increasing pain or drug-induced stupor. "For what?" she asked during one of the interviews, her arms raised imploringly toward the ceiling. "If there was any hope at all, yes. But my God, it's been written in stone and not in pencil that I don't have a chance. This is a futile, hopeless situation. I have a right to die with dignity."

Sitting at the foot of her bed, Alfred Greenhood, her husband of 55 years, nodded his head in resigned agreement. "I'd like to have her around as long as possible, but it's her life and her comfort," he said. "If she's subjected to horrendous pain, I don't see how you can argue with her."

Kevorkian clipping

On a table next to the bed was a newspaper clipping about Jack Kevorkian, the Michigan doctor who has aided 18 terminally ill patients in killing themselves. His actions, which have resulted in criminal charges, have provoked a national debate over physicians' roles in ending life. "I think he's doing a marvelous job, definitely, a world of good," said Mrs. Greenhood.

Six weeks ago, Mrs. Greenhood's worst fears were confirmed. Surrounded by her husband and two grown daughters, she heard a Johns Hopkins surgeon explain that the cancer was not only in her colon but had spread to her liver. Mrs. Greenhood might not see the new year, the doctor said.

She returned to her apartment in Northwest Baltimore, hoping that she wouldn't even make it to autumn. "I felt, dear God, let it be fast," she said.

Although the doctor promised Mrs. Greenhood that he could keep her pain-free, she did not view his reassurances altogether as a blessing. The cancer had made her lethargic but had not impaired her thinking. She feared that the pain-killing drugs would "turn me into a zombie," she said. Death was altogether preferable.

She asked her long-time internist, Dr. Richard Berg, if he could help her end her life. "He said, 'I could never ever do it because of my Hippocratic Oath,' " she recalled.

Wednesday, before learning of Mrs. Greenhood's death, Dr. Berg said: "Personally, I think she's a very brave, very coherent, intelligent lady, and I understand the way she feels. It's against the law in this country at this time for us to help her in the way she wants to be helped."

Mrs. Greenhood proclaimed herself ready for death. "I don't believe in heaven or hell," she said. Raised Jewish, she said that she lost her faith years ago and that her approaching death had not changed her views on the matter. "This is all there is. That's fine. I've lived a life. It's time to call it a day."

Born Janis Hecht, she lived almost her whole life in Northwest Baltimore. She graduated from Western High School in 1933 with aspirations for an acting career. A year in New York convinced her it was not for her. She returned to Baltimore, took a typing course and began her career as a secretary and bookkeeper.

Waiting for her in Baltimore was a tall, gentle young man named Alfred Greenhood she met at a summer party in 1933. After a five-year courtship, they married.

Daughters Ilene and Cathy were born during the war years. Mrs. Greenhood continued to work into her 60s, until her health began to deteriorate. In her circle, she was known as a crack bridge and mah-jongg player. On Monday, she played her last card game with a group of lifelong friends.

Being in charge of the family's finances, Mrs. Greenhood devoted her dwindling energies in the last month to instructing her husband about their money matters. She did not want to leave Mr. Greenhood, a button salesman still on the job at age 80, unprepared.

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