UNION COUNTY — A 31-year-old terminally ill Union County young wife and mother stands firmly behind proposed legislation that would allow her to take her own life with the assistance
of her family doctor. Unfortunately, it will more than likely be too late to help her, even if a proposed bill making its way through the state legislature manages to hit the governor’s desk.
Jenny is just one of many in New Jersey who, along with the physicians who treat them, strongly believes assisted suicide should be an option for the terminally ill.
The question of death with dignity is a not a new one in New Jersey or throughout the country by any means. The issue has been debated heavily, but so far only three states have passed laws allowing the terminally ill to have a choice in how they die.
As far back as 1906 an assisted suicide movement was taking place in Iowa and Ohio. Prior to that, in the 1990s, this controversial issue resurfaced when Dr. Jack Kevorkian helped over 40 Michigan residents end their life.
In recent weeks, when 30-year-old Brittany Maynard left her California home in order to take advantage of Oregon’s Death With Dignity law, it brought the issue to the national forefront once again.
Oregon, along with Vermont and Washington state, are the only states who have adopted laws allowing physician assisted suicide. Then, just several weeks ago, the New Jersey Assembly narrowly passed a bill that would allow physicians to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients. However, even if this proposed measure passes the senate vote in the coming months, it probably will be too late for this once vibrant young woman whose smile lights up the room.
By then, this Union County resident will either be in the end stages of a cancer that will leave her comatose, or have died without the dignity she wanted so badly.
Parents of three children under the age of five, Jenny, 31, and Jeff, 34, are more than aware that even if the
senate approves this measure, it may not go any further because Gov. Chris Christie has publicly come out against doctor assisted suicide.
Jenny, however, felt it was important that her story and wishes be heard so the issue is brought to the forefront.
“I want everyone who reads our story to understand I love my husband and children more than life itself. But, I would sacrifice anything just to know that when they think of me in the years to come it is with a smile, a giggle or laughter,” Jenny told LocalSource in an interview recently, adding this was the way their life was before and after she was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor.
Life before this devastating news impacted their life is evident throughout the sprawling, Victorian home the couple painstakingly renovated over the last six years. One only has to look at the pictures that line the walls and tables in every room to see a slightly younger and carefree couple living life to the fullest.
Whether it was summers spent at the Jersey Shore while they were dating, the surprised look on Jenny’s face the day Jeff proposed, their wedding day as they embraced on the beach at sunset, the delivery room right after their first child was born four short years before, or as they chopped down a Christmas tree two years ago, the story of the life this couple built together is a testament of the love and happiness they nurtured together.
Mingled in with the times of their life before cancer are shots of the couple, their children and family members over the last two years. As time went on, a much thinner, paler version of Jenny looks into the camera, always smiling, even though many of these shots were taken during the year and a half she went through chemotherapy and radiation.
Despite all this young mother has gone through, she refuses to let this illness change the normal life they led before her diagnosis.
For instance, just this past August, Jenny refused to give up their annual family vacation on Long Beach Island. Even though she was no longer able to walk very far without help, Jeff carried his wife to the beach every day where she sat for hours watching their children play in the surf, build sand castles and collect shells.
“I was pretty sure that this would be the last time we had the chance to enjoy the shore as a family and I wanted it to be something the children would never forget,” she said, holding up a picture of the five of them in matching sweatshirts nestled against a sand dune.
“Jeff and I decided this would be our Christmas card this year and it will go out, regardless of what happens. What matters is that after I’m gone our family and friends will be reminded that we had an amazing, blessed life together and this was one of those moments,” Jenny said, adding she made videos for each of her children so they will recall that trip to the beach as a family along with many other happy times they spent together.
Since the summer Jenny has grown steadily weaker and exhausted from the intractable pain she endures. Mornings are better than later in the day when it takes increasingly larger amounts of medication to ward off this unrelenting pain that wracks her frail body.
Still, despite the physical limitations from this brutal cancer, she must cope with and the fact that she is dying. When visited recently, Jenny sat crossed legged on their king-sized bed, a bright pink bandanna covering her bald head.
“I had the most amazing long, curly hair,” she said somewhat wistfully, adding with a cheerful laugh, “I know, I know, it sounds crazy, but I’m still a woman.”
Several intravenous lines run into her painfully thin arm and neck, while a morphine pump is at the ready if the pain becomes too much to bear.
“This is a good day,” Jenny reports brightly, flashing a brilliant smile, but the pale yellow of her skin and her rail thin body reminds anyone who visits that she is an acutely ill young woman.
Regardless, when her youngest bounds into the room, struggles to climb on the bed and then begins to jump up and down, this young mother gazes at her little girl with loving eyes. As the little one edges toward the side of the bed, the young mother automatically reaches out her arm to pull her daughter to safety.
Soon the two older children race into the room, leap onto the bed, begging that their mom to read them a story. Within seconds the children snuggle down on either side of their mother, listening intently as she reads from a favorite book with great animation.
Later, after the children have gone out to rake leaves with their grandfather, Jenny explains why she and her husband believe it’s important for the terminally ill to come out in the open about assisted suicide and a patient’s right to die with dignity.
“This isn’t about the law, legislators or even the governor. This is about a person like me having the right to die with dignity because they don’t want their children, spouse or family members to watch the protracted and painful death of someone they love,” said the young mother, her blue eyes welling with tears at the thought.
“From the beginning, when we were told I was not going to make it, Jeff and I have done everything we can to maintain a normal happy life for each other and our kids,” she said, adding “this is the way I wish it could be at the end of my life.”
While Jenny’s physician pays a visit, Jeff explained that Jenny’s illness came without warning just a few months after their third child arrived.
“When she fainted a few times neither one of us were worried. I mean, she just had a baby and we had two toddlers at home. Things are crazy around here all the time, I figured she was just rundown,” he said sadly, as his youngest leaps into his lap, throws her tiny arms around his neck and begs for a piggy-back ride.
Leaping up, the young father swept his tow-headed little girl onto his back and began jogging around the room, much to the delight of his little one.
Meanwhile, under the dining room table, now covered by a large blanket skimming the floor, the two older children, 3- and 4-years-old, flashlights in hand, yell out that they are “camping in the woods.”
Few would know from the bustling action that goes on that anyone was sick, let alone dying of cancer. There is a constant flow of neighbors and family streaming in the front door, calling out cheerfully as they head up the stairs to visit Jenny, crawl around on the floor with the children or join Jeff’s mother in the kitchen where she is keeping close check on her special chocolate chip cookies that are just about to come out of the oven.
In between she is folding laundry along with help from Jeff’s sister, who arrived this week from another state to lend a hand.
“It’s always like this around here,” Jeff explained as he lifted his 2-year-old from his shoulders, kissed the top of her head, patted her on the bottom and lovingly watched as she raced toward her brothers.
“She looks just like my wife,” he said softly, eyes misting over slightly before he quickly leaped up and raced toward the hallway where he managed to catch the youngest boy as he slid down the stairwell banister. Unaffected, he hugs the little boy close and makes an offer the children cannot refuse.
“Who wants Grammy’s cookies? Let’s go see if they are ready yet,” he said, smiling as his little ones hit the swinging door loudly, disappearing into the kitchen.
“I better make sure they don’t destroy anything out there,” Jeff said with a laugh.
A few minutes later the young father returns, flops down on the couch, munching on a warm chocolate chip cookie with great enjoyment.
“You can’t beat my mom’s cookies,” he said, but grows quiet for a moment or two before sighing softly.
“I want people to know that Jenny is the love of my life, my best friend. We love each other deeply, profoundly and when she is gone there will be a hole so deep I’m not sure anyone could ever fill that place again,” Jeff said.
“My wife is an amazing, giving person who thinks
about everyone but herself. If she could she would
make sure we never saw her like this.”
Jenny’s doctor agreed to talk to LocalSource about the proposed assisted suicide legislation in New Jersey, but admitted he had little hope that it would pass.
Like Jenny and Jeff, he admitted he strongly believes in physician assisted suicide. He explained that terminally ill patients like Jenny not only are battling an illness that will result in their death, but also watching the emotional toll it takes on their spouse, children, family and friends.
“You have to understand that as a doctor it is my job to help people, but what about people like Jenny, who I can’t help? She is going to die, but not before she sinks to a level that no mother would want her husband, let alone young children to see,” the physician said, revealing Jenny already has had seizures that one of the children came close to witnessing.
“I know this young woman very, very well and have since she was a teenager. The hard part as a doctor is watching her die a little more every day and knowing I can’t do what she wants. She is in incredible pain but does not want to be over medicated, but there will come a point when she will go into a coma and the children will see her like that,” said the physician.
Jeff quietly comes into the room and sits next to their family doctor and it is clearly evident there is a deep bond between the two.
The physician looked down for a moment, cleared his throat and then began to speak again.
“I am going to speak frankly to you and I hope, through you, my message will reach ears that need to hear what I have to say. Physician-assisted suicide has been going on in this state for decades. To think otherwise is naïve. There are more people than anyone realizes who believe a terminally ill person has the right to end their life as they choose, not as some legislator with political ties decides is best for his reelection campaign,” he said candidly.
“I am aware that this death with dignity bill passed the assembly and is headed to the senate, but I wonder how many of these legislators truly know the impact of the decision they are charged with making. Should it, by some miracle, pass the senate, will Gov. Christie set aside his personal beliefs to do due diligence for the people of this state? I’m not so sure he will, so I’m asking him, imploring him as a man and doctor, to let us legally help those who should have the freedom to make this decision, on their own, without fear of reprisal,” he added.
Recent polls show a slight majority of New Jersey voters support physician assisted suicide in the Garden state.
The senate is expected to act on the proposed bill, A-2210, in the coming weeks. Specifically, the bill would allow physicians to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients after a series of safeguards were met. The bill also defines a “terminal disease” as an incurable, irreversible disease that has been medically confirmed and will, within reasonable medical judgment, result in a patient’s death within six months.
The bill establishes a procedure for patients to make a request to a physician to provide help in ending their life. A second doctor would have to certify the original terminal diagnosis and confirm the patient is capable of making the decision to die without pressure from others.
Should the measure become a law, New Jersey would become the fourth state to adopt a “Death with Dignity” act.