Janice Abrams, 72, helped others through phone calls

March 16, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Janice M. Abrams, who was determined to lead a productive life despite a rare spinal tumor that confined her to bed for 23 years, died Monday of lung disease at South Georgia Medical Center in Valdosta, Ga.

Mrs. Abrams, 72, lived in the 6700 block of Park Heights Ave. in Northwest Baltimore for many years, then moved to Valdosta in 1997 to be near her daughter.

When she was 49, Mrs. Abrams, a former Hutzler's advertising artist and real estate agent, got the diagnosis of the tumor that left her in constant pain even when traveling in her electric wheelchair. Two operations were unsuccessful.

After she developed an allergy to certain painkillers, the best hope doctors could offer was for her to remain in bed, lie flat and elevate her knees slightly.

Determined to expand her world beyond her bedroom walls, Mrs. Abrams viewed her telephone as the link that would keep her involved and intellectually and emotionally alive.

At first, she faced rejection when contacting organizations and suggesting that she become a phone buddy.

However, she was able to convince the Red Cross that she could be a "donor phoner" and, working from her phone, lined up blood donors. She added crisis hot line counseling and monitored terminal cancer patients for Sinai Hospital.

From a bedside table that was filled with directories, computer printouts of phone numbers, a glass of water and packs of cigarettes, Mrs. Abrams dialed and spoke long into the night.

She helped the troubled and the lonely, the sick and the frightened, and was always more worried about their problems than about her own, friends said.

Family members and friends said it took her mind off her own troubles and pain.

"She'd often say, `They're worse off than I am,' " said Jane M. Lillien of Pikesville, a friend of 40 years.

"She had a strong will, and it made her a fighter. She was always trying to do things, and with her phone, it kept her out in the world."

Mrs. Abrams' daughter, Emily Haltiwanger of Valdosta, said her mother talked with more than 28 terminal cancer patients.

"She'd call them on the phone, see if they needed anything. She'd send them flowers for their birthday and see how they were doing. If they had a problem, she'd get it fixed," she said. "She quickly made relationships, and when they died, she felt so bad. Mom had such a big heart."

Nancy L. Smith of Canton, a longtime nurse, said Mrs. Abrams "met life head-on and went at it full blast. She went right at it. She sure did. She was both an inspiration and miracle."

Jane D. Kurland of Pikesville, whose friendship with Mrs. Abrams dated to their youth in Northwest Baltimore, said, "She always conducted herself as if she were on two feet. She wanted to exist as a normal human being.

"She was a remarkable woman who endured a great deal of suffering. She was most generous, kind and thoughtful. There aren't enough adjectives to describe her."

Mrs. Abrams learned to paint with watercolors while lying on her back. Friends and family members brought her books, which she sometimes devoured at the rate of 18 a week. She gave parties and entertained, and her home was seldom without visiting relatives and friends.

"She was always totally in charge of her life. She had drive and never felt sorry for herself," her daughter said.

Mrs. Abrams told The Sun in a 1980 interview it was the little things in life that she missed being able to do.

"Just getting up, throwing on my clothes and running out the door, having deadlines, having times to run to work and having times to run to the grocery store, being able to go to the shoemaker, going shopping. You could go mad. But there's no place to complain, no complaint department. So you just take it."

Born Janice M. Abrams, and raised in Northwest Baltimore, she was a 1946 graduate of Forest Park High School. She earned a bachelor's degree from Maryland Institute, College of Art in 1950.

Her marriage to Ben Piven ended in divorce. In 1979, she married Dr. Robert C. Abrams, who died last year.

She was a member of Temple Israel and the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. She was also a lifetime member of Hadassah.

Funeral services were held yesterday in Valdosta.

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by a son, Dr. Joseph Piven of Chapel Hill, N.C.; and five grandchildren.

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