Rabbit hall to honor Hopkins' study victim

Building in Westminster to represent woman's love for animals, family says

December 22, 2003|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

As a little girl, Ellen Marie Roche's ever-expanding menagerie came to include a goat, a lamb, chickens, guinea pigs and two horses. She could hardly wait to join 4-H, and she quickly immersed herself in raising and showing rabbits.

In no time, she was tending to 100 bunnies in cages lining the dirt-floor basement of her family's farmhouse.

Her father laughs softly at the animal tales. How she helped deliver a lamb and then brought it home for the two of them to bottle feed every four hours.

How she washed her chickens in the kitchen sink and giggled as they flapped around the Reisterstown home. The way she painstakingly fashioned a ceramic model of her favorite rabbit for display atop the family mantel.

That's the way Bernard J. Roche Jr. wants his daughter remembered. He doesn't want her known only as a 24-year-old woman who died two years ago in a Johns Hopkins medical experiment, a study of how the lungs of healthy people work differently from those of asthmatics.

Her family, having established a scholarship fund in her memory, plans to honor her with a gift designed to commemorate her nurturing spirit while giving others a chance to follow her lead.

The family has pledged at least $60,000 for the construction of a building where children can show rabbits at the Carroll County Agriculture Center in Westminster.

The old rabbit barn where Ellen Roche showed her animals was razed to make way for a $4.3 million, 52,500-square-foot arena to showcase the county's well-attended late-summer 4-H Fair. The new rabbit hall would also accommodate shows throughout the year.

"She really loved all animals, but especially rabbits," said her father, a professional photographer who for years shot fair photos for 4-H.

"She got all involved in raising them, showing them and judging them. It seemed like we were always feeding rabbits, and she was always demonstrating or helping others out with their rabbits. Even after 4-H, she competed in adult rabbit shows.

"Whatever it takes to make this building happen, we are going to spend it."

Carolyn Roche, Ellen's stepmother, said, "We thought this was a way to do something in Ellen's memory."

At the annual fair, the Roches' recreational vehicle was always open for the extended 4-H family. As Ellen Roche grew into organization leadership roles - she was an officer in its rabbit club, and a 4-H ambassador - she became a mentor to the younger members.

"I remember how Ellen would take the younger kids under her wings, happy to show them whatever they needed to know," said Joanne Sayre of Finksburg, whose two sons were in the rabbit club.

Once, before a show, judges found that the trophies had been stolen.

"Ellen went through her own trophies, took the plaques off and donated them so the kids would have them," Carolyn Roche said.

Renee Luers Mohr, a childhood friend and fellow 4-H member, said Roche became an expert on the many breeds of rabbits.

"She became so good at judging that no one could beat her," Mohr said. "She knew so much about raising rabbits, and I think that she loved helping others out. She so deserves this honor."

Initial plans call for a 5,000-square-foot metal building near the Ag Center's riding ring. Rabbits are among the most popular exhibits, said Barry Lippy, 4-H Fair director, adding that a show last month at the center featured 2,500 rabbits.

"This building is definitely needed and will really help us out," Lippy said.

At the time of her death, Ellen Roche was a research technician at the Baltimore hospital's allergy and asthma center and was taking graduate classes in the evenings. She had earned a degree in biology from Frostburg State University.

Her lifelong aspiration was to become a veterinarian, her father said.

The job at Hopkins helped her pay for night school and the new home in Reisterstown that she had just bought, and it meant that she could save money for veterinary school.

Carolyn Roche said her stepdaughter participated in the Hopkins experiment to help a co-worker. She gave her parents a tour of the lab the day she took the test, which required her to inhale an experimental chemical.

She also insisted that her father give a vial of blood for another experiment.

A day after the test, she developed a cough and flulike symptoms and was hospitalized after X-rays showed a lung infection. She died June 2, 2001, at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, about a month after taking part in the experiment.

Federal investigators found that the doctors who conducted the experiment had failed to find readily available studies that documented the chemical's potentially fatal side effects.

They also did not warn Roche of the risks of the experiment and failed to tell her or a university review board that an earlier volunteer had developed a persistent cough, federal officials said.

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