Most women choose surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy to rid their bodies of breast cancer. Jennifer Drayton Austin tried healing from within.
Illustrations by Bill Koeb
All of the warnings, every worrisome conversation over the past 72 hours and the weeks and months before that, even his most vivid and frightful attempts at visualization had not prepared Brian Drayton for the moment he walked down that narrow basement hallway and turned the corner. Finally, after three days in which he had been left waiting and wishing and wondering, Brian had been allowed to see his sister Jennifer.
He had considered flying back east, even moving back to D.C. or Baltimore months agoin March, when another sister, Imani, had placed the Drayton family on red alert. Jennifer, though, had convinced her younger brother that his love and support were best sent long distance. She was on the road to full recovery, Jennifer told him, but right now she was in a difficult part of the process. She had a lot of work ahead. She was too tired for visitors, even close family.
So Brian had abided by Jennifer’s wishes and stayed put in California. Even when Imani called again to report that the situation had gotten scarier, and his West Coast siblings, Bo and Catherine, decided to make the trip out to D.C. in July, Brian remained stubbornly loyal to his sister’s desire. Bo and Catherine returned from the trip almost speechless, having witnessed their 36-year-old sister dying from breast cancer and willingly wasting away under the care of her naturopathic healers.
This was Jennifer’s choice, they told themselves. There was not much to say. But a couple of weeks later, Imani told Brian that he needed to come see Jennifer now. Right now.
Three thousand miles and his earlier hesitation behind him, Brian approached the white brick house in the 1700 block of Verbena Street NW and descended the stairwell leading to its basement apartment. He was greeted by Henry “Hank” Jones, who invited Brian to wait amid the boxes and African sculptures and other haphazardly stored items in the front room while Jennifer completed a treatment in the back with Hank’s wife, Yemi Bates-Jones.
Yemi emerged soon after and escorted Brian up a couple of stairs and down the corridor to his sister.
He turned the corner into a back bedroom. There was Jennifer lying on a bed, her 75-pound frame propped up by five pillows. Her kinky hair had grown straight, and her very light-colored black skin looked taut and blotchy. Her legs rested like tent poles collapsed underneath layers of blankets. A portable heater kept her bedroom at 90 degrees, even in those dog days of August, because, Brian was told later, Jennifer’s body temperature dipped dangerously below normal levels.
He looked into her sunken eyes. “Hi, Jennifer!” he greeted his sister cheerfully, trying his best to conceal his shock.
Jennifer told Brian that she felt good, that the process was working. They chatted for a little under an hour, with Jennifer coughing and wheezing in between words and sentences. The toxins exiting her body made it difficult for her to breathe, Jennifer explained. Then she told her brother that she had had enough for the day and requested Yemi again.
Jennifer was dying, and she was clearly in denial about it. Brian repeatedly asked Jennifer and her healers over the next few days: What exactly was this process, this magic cure for cancer? Jennifer deferred his inquiries to Yemi, who spoke not about cancer but “vibrations,” “movement,” “toxins,” and “dis-ease.” He read Yemi’s book, hoping it would give him a better understanding of the “vital force mutation theory” that his sister seemed to believe in so fervently that she appeared willing to sacrifice her life for it.
Four years ago, when the lump in her breast had felt more like a few grains of couscous, Jennifer Drayton Austin had embarked on a holistic method to fight breast cancer. She would rid herself of the disease not through the invasive methods offered by conventional medicine, such as surgery and radiation, but through a process of purification that would make her body inhospitable to cancerous cells. Jennifer had touted initial reports of successthe lump was shrinking, family and friends were led to believe. Yemi’s raw-food diet, energy work, and spiritual focus seemed like a radically ambitious and pioneering therapy, Brian had thought back then, even if slightly risky in its nonmedical approach. Now it seemed to him cruel, futile, and profoundly wrong.
One afternoon in August, Brian and Imani went to visit their sister and got no answer at the door. Yemi and Hank had left Jennifer alone. The siblings spotted their sister through the bedroom window, her upper body exposed as she rested in bed. The lump in her right breast rose above her chest like a cauliflower, all bumpy and rough and grotesque.
Trying, somehow, to grasp a rational explanation for his sister’s treatment, Brian reached only one conclusion: It was really one big mindfuck.
On the patch of grass in front of the house on Verbena Street, Brian decided to hold a prayer vigil: one man, a half-dozen or so citronella candles, and hundreds of mosquitoes. It was Monday night, Aug. 14, a few days before he planned to return home to his wife and child in California.
Brian had come to believe that his smart, savvy, scholarly sister had been brainwashed. Despite her trouble breathing and other bodily dysfunctions, Jennifer still refused any and all medical intervention. She insisted that she was cleansing herself, ridding her body of cancerous cells and poisonous toxins through a strict spiritual regimen and positive energy. Brian thought that Jennifer was starving herself to death. She subsisted on a minimalist diet of avocado, vegetable broth, unleavened bread, and tea. Her body was slowly eating away at itself, he suspected.
So Brian prayed and meditated for three hours that summer evening, sending all his love and energy to his sister, who lay less than a hundred feet away inside the basement apartment. Neighbors eyed Brian as they returned home from work, curious about this most unusual event taking place in their placid upper-16th Street neighborhood near the Silver Spring border.
Jennifer was under the sway, Brian had decided, of two aggressive healersa suspicion that was only fueled when Yemi later required Brian to wear a blindfold during certain visits, explaining to him that the spirits told her that human eyes could not rest on Jennifer’s breast. His questions and anger multiplied as access to his sister grew restricted. Jennifer’s intensive treatments with Yemi were isolating her from her family and friends for days at a time.
Her sisters, Imani Drayton-Hill and Catherine Drayton Lee, her brothers, Elmont “Bo” Drayton and Brian Drayton, her father, Elmont Drayton, and her husband, Nigel Austin, all wanted Jennifer to spend what seemed to them to be her final days in comfort, a luxury that they thought her healers had failed to provide her. So they made small adjustments, within the boundaries of Jennifer’s wishes, to improve her quality of life. They purchased a fan and a dehumidifier, which reduced the moisture in the musty basement. They asked Yemi if it might be possible to move a hospital bed into Jennifer’s room; Yemi said it would be too large. And Imani convinced a doctor friend to write Jennifer a prescription for oxygen, so Jennifer would have an easier time breathing; Jennifer said she wasn’t interested.
The family felt helpless, watching Jennifer die in what seemed to be unnecessary distress. “I decided that if I didn’t actit was a farce, and she was going to die in misery,” Brian says about his decision to hold the prayer vigil. “It wasn’t a protest; it was sending all the love I could. I would place myself as a guide for all our energy.”
Brian had e-mailed Jennifer’s friends and family encouraging their participation in the vigil. Most felt torn: Did the vigil support or detract from Jennifer’s efforts? Even in her visible distress, Jennifer remained adamant about her decision to treat the disease holistically. Despite a request from Yemi and Hank that he leave, Brian remained on the lawn, praying alone for most of the evening. As nightfall approached, Jennifer’s first cousin Pamm Jackson continued the vigil. In contrast to Brian’s pensive approach, Pamm prayed out loud.
Jennifer was upset. Yemi and Hank, who maintain that they were only providing care Jennifer had requested and steadfastly deny having exerted any improper influence over her, told Brian and Pamm that Jennifer had asked that the vigil be moved out of public view. They then invited Brian and Pamm to pray inside. Hank said, somewhat ominously, that he hoped the cousins’ actions that evening had not harmed Jennifer or interfered with her healing process in any way.
Brian and Pamm chose to remain outdoors. “I was there to talk to God on behalf of my cousin,” Pamm says. “I knew my cousin was about to cross over, and I didn’t want her to die in that house.”
Brian held another vigil the next night. He told Yemi and Hank that he and Pamm would continue to do so every night that Jennifer remained in their care.
The next morning, Gina Smallwood’s phone rang at 8 o’clock. Jennifer was on the line. She needed to move out of the Verbena Street basement right away. The vigil had apparently attracted unwanted attention, especially from Yemi and Hank’s upstairs neighbor.
Gina had hosted Jennifer many times before. The two had been friends ever since Jennifer dated Gina’s uncle, more than 10 years before. Now they were soul sisters, maintaining their relationship long after Jennifer’s had ended with Gina’s uncle. “We were very, very close,” Gina says. “Spiritwise, I don’t know anybody that has a more beautiful spirit than her….She was really special.”
Yemi and Hank’s van pulled up to Gina’s house a few hours later. Jennifer lay delicately on top of a blanket in the van’s cargo space. Her body looked frail, too fragile to touch. Hank and Yemi grabbed one end of the blanket, Gina and Jennifer’s close friend Okolo Thomas-Toure the other, and they shimmied Jennifer into Gina’s bedroom.
Jennifer started to cry soon after. “Can you believe it?” she asked Gina. “My family thinks I’m dying.”
Gina knew that all Jennifer had left was faithfaith in a process that seemed mysterious to everyone except Jennifer and her naturopathic healers. A process that had allowed Jennifer’s spirit to soar at times, Gina had observed, even when her physical body seemed on the verge of collapse.
A process that had drained Jennifer of all her money.
“Gina, can you tell me what’s going on?” Jennifer asked her friend.
Gina had no right answer to give. She disagreed with her friend’s decisions, but second-guessing them now would only shatter Jennifer’s confidence and friendship. And, perhaps, Gina thought, there was still a very small chance that Jennifer would prove her wrong.
Gina remained silent.
Jennifer Drayton Austin grew up in a family that was sort of bohemian, somewhat scholarly, and definitely different from most other middle-class African-American families trying to keep up with the Joneses in West Baltimore. The Drayton kids didn’t drink soda. They hardly kept pace with the latest fashions. And they didn’t seem to mind.
Kay and Elmont Drayton believed in alternative parenting methods, like talking things through with their children when they acted inappropriately. Kay encouraged her kids to think independently. The Draytons read a lot. At Halloween, Elmont was the type of father who helped his children build a fantastic haunted house in the garage.
“Their whole vibe was kinda enchanted,” remembers Julia Chance, a schoolmate and close friend of both Imani and Jennifer’s who grew up a few blocks away.
But the vibe changed when Kay Drayton was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a radical mastectomy and chemotherapy, and she never really returned home after the surgery. She moved out of the house and separated from Elmont; they divorced about seven years later.
Those years and beyond, Kay maintained a strong presence in her children’s lives and even in those of their friends. She was not only a mother but a valued friend to her children, especially to Jennifer. She was supportive of all of her daughter’s endeavors, from serving as membership director at the WPFW radio station to being an assistant director with the Everyday Theater to working at the Namibian Embassy to coordinating a yearly conference for the Washington Office on Africa. And she was there helping to pack boxes every time Jennifer moved: to D.C., to California, back to D.C., to Gainesville, Fla., and a couple more times in between.
Kay had been a breast cancer survivor going on 16 years when the Draytons celebrated Bo’s wedding, in late 1995. But, upon returning home from the event, Kay fell violently ill. She checked into the hospital almost immediately after her plane landed in Baltimore. Her breast cancer had recurred, and Kay had kept it under wraps for monthsat least.
Kay had decided against aggressive medical treatment, hoping to pursue a more holistic approach to the disease this time. The family didn’t object. “My mom had had so many different procedures. She didn’t want her body invaded anymore,” says Brian. “I don’t think she was trying to cure cancer. She was trying to cope with it, leave of sound mind and body and emotionally prepared.”
Jennifer took a break from her graduate studies at the University of Florida and moved in with her mother in Baltimore. She became Kay’s caregiver, staying up with her mother during the long days and nights Kay dealt with the pain and vomiting and discomfort. It was really rough, Jennifer told her family and friends. Kay would sit at the dining-room table in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, telling her daughter that she looked forward to seeing all the friends she hadn’t visited with in a long time. She was clearly heading toward the afterlife.
Jennifer introduced her mother during that time to Yemi Bates-Jones, who offered herbs and applied oils and worked on Kay’s energy. Jennifer and Kay made a couple of visits during those weeks to Yemi’s office in Washington. During Kay’s final days, Yemi remembers, she and Hank plowed through a massive winter storm to make a home visit to Kay’s apartment in Baltimore. Kay died a few days later.
Jennifer had first met Yemi about a decade earlier at meetings of the National Black Women’s Health Project, a group that primarily attracted young, well-educated African-American women like Jennifer, Imani, and their friends. The meetings were often informal, living-room-style discussions, where women would discuss health concerns and offer each other advice and suggestions. Yemi attended some of the meetings. At the time, Imani and Julia remember, Yemi promoted a wheatgrass diet that was somewhat well-known from the teachings of naturopathic guru Ann Wigmore.
Both Drayton sisters and their close friends had experimented with alternative approaches to health care. “We looked at [Western] medicine with cynicism,” Julia recalls. They tended to have nonprofit and restaurant jobs that offered few benefits like health insurance, so holistic remedies seemed not only innovative but quite practical. Jennifer had even assisted her friend Paula Stanley with a home birth. And Imani, who for years had suffered from a relentless skin condition, unrelieved despite numerous trips to the dermatologist, sought out a naturopath. The practitioner suggested herbs and diet change, and Imani’s dermatitis seemed to clear up soon after.
That success encouraged Imani to eat a primarily raw-food diet, which Jennifer and Julia slowly adopted as well. All three had landed in D.C. after college: first Imani, then Jennifer and Julia, all living for a time in a small studio apartment near Adams Morgan, then sharing a house at New Jersey and R Streets NW. Over time, Jennifer became even more strict about her diet than Imani. One New Year’s Eve, the Drayton sisters along with Julia and Pamm prepared an all-raw-fruit-and-vegetable dinner. When the clock struck midnight, the group poured carrot juice while others chugged champagne.
Jennifer partied with a purposewhether it was to combat apartheid in South Africa, to protest U.S. government aid to the Contras, or to keep a local D.C. arts project funded. She took African dance classes with her friend Okolo; music and dancing seemed requisite at every gathering Jennifer sponsored. And when she wasn’t hosting a party herself, Jennifer always knew where to find one. She had joie de vivre, although she refrained from alcohol and smoking and drugs.
She began attending wellness retreats at Yemi and Hank’s house in Southern Maryland as well as visiting Yemi at her office on H Street NE, near the Hechinger Mall. According to friends and family, Jennifer sought Yemi’s help when she discovered symptoms of hepatitis and other problems, some related to reproductive health. The ailments disappeared with Yemi’s treatments, Jennifer said.
Jennifer believed that Yemi’s work had resolved some of the cancerous masses on Kay’s chest before she passed away. Imani remained skeptical. Kay had coughed up dark mucus, which Yemi explained was toxins being expelled from Kay’s body. “[Jennifer] wanted to believe what Yemi was saying,” says Imani.
Consultations with friends in medicine led Imani to conclude that her mother had been coughing up blood. The cancer had most likely metastasized to her lungs, her friends guessed. “We had completely different takes on what the results had been of Yemi working with my mother,” Imani says. “My impression was that [Kay] had some reservationssome discomfort and negative experience with it.”
Around the same time she had been dealing with her mother’s recurrence of cancer, in late 1995, Jennifer discovered a very tiny lump in her own breast. That next summer, Jennifer visited her friend Julia, who had since moved to New York. Both women had concerns about lumps in their breasts. “I remember showing her the lump, and she touched my lump, and we meditated,” Julia remembers. Julia’s lump turned out to be benign, though she learned that she had what doctors call a fibrocystic breast. Fibrocystic breasts tend to feel lumpy, like homemade mashed potatoes.
Jennifer’s X-ray would show a milky-white mass within her breast.
Her biopsy would come back malignant.
Yemi Bates-Jones waves what looks like a 15-inch metal curtain rod at me. The shiny shaft is squarish in cross-section and has sharp, screwlike ends. Jennifer had the rod in her left femur for 18 months after getting in a car accident in college. She hung onto it long after it had been removed, Yemi says, and asked Yemi to keep it.
Jennifer had fractured her pelvic and thigh bones in the crash, and doctors had implanted the titanium rod to help her heal properly. The surgery had allowed her to walk again, but Jennifer thought that it might have had a negative impact on her overall wellness, Yemi says. “What I would think it would do, would lower the vibration,” Yemi explains. “If there’s a lowering of the vibrations, it would inhibit the functioning of the body to heal or make what it needs.”
Vibrations, Yemi explains, are waves of energy that travel through the body. The foreign rod may have reduced Jennifer’s energy. Low energy allows poisonous elements, or what Yemi calls “toxins,” to enter the system. Like cancer, for example.
“I think that the experience of going through that trauma might have had some impact on, let’s say, [Jennifer’s] caution or fear about a lot of the medical stuff,” Yemi says.
Wariness of medicine had also steered Hank and Yemi Jones toward naturopathy. After 20 years of service in the Air Force, Hank says, he had been left to die at the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home, a residence for retired military personnel in Northeast Washington. Hank suffered from kidney problems, liver complications, and a host of other maladies, for which he was given 24 pills a day, he says, and three to five years to live. Old Soldiers’ Home records indicate that Hank lived there because of a “physical disability.”
“Heart Attack of the Week Club, almost,” Hank says with a laugh. “With 24 pills a day, I personally didn’t want to stick around.” Until, that is, he met Yemi Bates in the ’80s while volunteering with Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), the group founded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson to promote racial and social justice. Yemi just glowed, Hank recalls, with dark skin that seemed to radiate, an ever-present smile, and an overwhelmingly powerful spirit.
Hank didn’t know at the time that Yemi had narrowly escaped death herself. As a youngster growing up in Monmouth County, N.J., Yemithen known as Delores Batescontracted scarlet fever from raw cow’s milk, she says. To break her high fever, Yemi’s grandmother applied a special solution all over the girl’s body. She made her granddaughter wear a pouch around her neck packed with all kinds of medicinal herbs, including garlic and pepper seeds. Yemi says that she’s never experienced symptoms of the disease since then, even though doctors warned that she would.
The episode spurred Yemi’s interest in holistic remedies, especially those practiced within the African-American community. Yemi decided to make it more than an avocation: In 1991, she received a master’s degree in holistic studies and wellness from Norwich University in Vermont. She and Hank now operate a naturopathic practice they call the “Zenith Vibration Purification Institute.”
Hank left the Old Soldiers’ Home in March 1988. At 72, he says, he feels great. He credits Yemi, 62, with raising his consciousness not only about things political, but about matters close to the heart.
Like his own heart. And his digestive tract.
And his “vital gut.”
Unlike the heart or the intestines, the vital gut isn’t found in anatomy charts or biology textbooks. But according to Yemi, it resides in all of our bodies, 2 inches below the navel, near the reproductive organs.
The vital gut is a focal point of Yemi’s wellness philosophy, what she calls a “vital force mutation theory” on the cover of her book, Fire Without Flame. “The fire without flame is the fire, the process of food turning into fuel, fuel turning into energy, energy turning into movement, movement into function, and function into consciousness,” Yemi explains.
Jennifer had another way of explaining it: “the process.”
As Jennifer’s siblings Imani and Brian came to find out, Yemi’s 88-page paperback hardly demystifies vital-force mutation with clear, explanatory prose. In fact, if you want to read the book, Yemi suggests starting with its glossary, because Fire Without Flame frequently invokes words like “lightbody” (“the light frequency surrounding the human being that reflects the body’s well-being or lack of well-being through color”), “yoke” (“a connection or a hindrance”), and “vital force” (“total life supporting energetic connection to the body”).
The first 38 pages of Fire Without Flame contain what Yemi terms in the table of contents “psalms of purification,” poetry that reads much like strung-together haikus:
Our yoke dis-ease
is our sluggish gut
that sends low kinetic energy
to the total body
the gateway is blocked.
Dead, processed, over fired, polluted,
low vibration producing food
is the culprit,
yielding inadequate energy
to keep the gut
working to the optimum.
Woe, woe, woe
the yoke is in the place
where rests the finest,
the most subtle energy potential,
where the most crucial
the vital gut.
woe, woe, woe
the gateway is blocked.
The second half of the book applies Yemi’s poetry to specific meals and lifestyle behaviors. In Part 3, “The Green Purification Process,” Yemi explains how to make the transition to a raw-food diet. Yemi advocates eating raw foods, such as uncooked fruits and vegetables, because they provide undiluted nutrients, or what she calls “firsthand energy.”
Kiwi and grapefruit figure prominently in Yemi’s diet. Citrus fruits are especially beneficial, she says, because they stimulate digestion and aid the production of kinetic energy. Yemi advises dark-skinned people to consume even more citrus. “[M]elanin dominant people need more fire in the digestive tract to vulcanize food to its optimum,” Yemi notes in Fire Without Flame.
Yemi discourages consumption of cooked or dead foods, such as beef and chicken, because they contain very little energy. Low energy induces what Yemi calls “sluggish gut syndrome.” With sluggish gut syndrome, the stomach and intestines digest food inefficiently, generating toxins as a byproduct.
Yemi’s work with vibrations bears some resemblance to both chi gong and reiki, two energy-related approaches to healing from Eastern cultures. Not being very familiar with those healing practices myself, I decided to experience Yemi’s approach firsthand.
After I arrived at the Verbena Street basement apartment, Yemi asked me to take my shoes off; she then led me up the few stairs to the first room on the right. She instructed me to undress to the waist, drape a blue towel over my upper body, and lie flat on my back on the massage-style table in the middle of the room. Yemi soon applied two warm washcloths over my chest and took a cotton swab of my saliva. I then waited in the dark, listening to the whirring of the refrigerator in the corner of the room while Yemi concocted a special salve just for me, she said, of homegrown flowers and herbs.
When Yemi returned, she waved her trembling right hand all over my body in jerky movements. At this point, she told me that she was assessing my energy, determining where I had weaknesses and blockages. Yemi asked me if I felt weaker on one side of my body. I said my left side. Yemi jiggled her hand over my right and left sides and agreed.
She then repeated, quickly and somewhat under her breath: “Give God to glory; Give God to glory; Give God to glory.”
Yemi removed the towels and placed thin pieces of white gauze over my chest, forehead, and mouth. With an eyedropper, she applied oil, which smelled like an herbal Vick’s VapoRub, around my breasts, mouth, and forehead. She then sat in a chair next to the table and meditated. At this point, Yemi said, she was connecting with my “lightbody,” my energy, my vibration. I might feel lightened, she warned me, as if my body were lifting off the table. After about 15 minutes, she left me to connect with my own vibrations for more than an hour.
She eventually returned and focused on my trouble zones, obstacles to the fluid flow of energy in my body. Yemi told me I had quite a few. I mentioned that I sometimes felt a numbness in my right shoulder area. Yemi made me stretch my arm to the left, applied more oil, and waved her hand over it again. We repeated similar exercises for my back. Yemi then asked if I felt better.
“I think so, but I’m not sure,” I replied.
D.C. law states that “any person who practices or offers to practice naturopathy or naturopathic healing in the District shall register with the Mayor on forms prescribed by the Mayor.” According to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which acts as the regulatory agent for this provision, neither Yemi Bates-Jones nor Henry “Hank” Jones is a registered naturopath with the District government.
Nevertheless, Yemi’s naturopathy attracts a devoted following of affluent, predominantly African-American clients. They live in some of the nicest neighborhoods in the District, Virginia, and Maryland. They have years of higher education and work important jobs. They’re people like Jennifer.
At my request, Yemi offered the names of people who would speak to me about her practice. Francis Manns, a pastoral counselor who sees Yemi at least twice a year for cleansings, says he remembers meeting Jennifer at his session this past summer. “Yemi’s a very powerful and talented healer,” says Eleanor Kibrick, an Arlington resident who sought Yemi’s energy work to heal a bruised jaw caused by a slip and fall. “Now my bite is much better.”
For her energy work, Yemi charges $75 for a session that can last up to two hours.
Jennifer’s cousin Pamm also consulted Yemi at Jennifer’s suggestion a little over a year ago. Yemi waved a medallion over Pamm’s vitamins and instructed Pamm how many to take of each. Then Yemi told Pamm that there might be something wrong with her liver. Pamm followed up with medical doctors, who detected nothing problematic or abnormal. Jennifer explained to her bewildered cousin that “the spirits” sometimes inform Yemi of problems that will arise in the future.
In her “Note to Readers” in a preface to Fire Without Flame, Yemi writes:
This book is written to introduce you to a theory on light, color, purification, and vibrational healing….It is intended to help you make sounder lifestyle choices. It is not a medical guide. If you suspect you have a medical problem, please consult a health practitioner for help. The authors and publisher specifically disclaim liability for any loss or risk incurred by the use or application of any of the contents of this book.
On Sept. 27, 1996, Jennifer wrote a letter to Yemi and Hank Jones from Florida:
Love to you both, and I hope your trip to Detroit was fruitful. I’m sending the hair sample and the larium medication that I took for malaria while in Nigeria.
By the time this reaches you, I’ll probably be in the Washington, DC area. I want to be around my friends and family to support me through this. I am pretty sure that I will have the lump removed, however, I am not interested in chemotherapy or radiation treatment (which the doctors, so far, have recommended). It is your work that I want to emphasize instead.
Jennifer signed the letter “Peace, Jen” and added a P.S. at the bottom:
The doctor I saw yesterday recommends one of two options:
a) a partial mastectomy
b) full mastectomy
The references were to a first opinion on her breast cancer that Jennifer had received in Gainesville, where she had returned to her studies as a graduate student in anthropology. The doctor had suggested, according to Imani, that, given her family’s medical history, Jennifer ought to undergo a full mastectomy.
Jennifer had been in Nigeria part of the summer studying Yoruba culture and religion when she started experiencing discomfort in her right breast. The lump had evolved from an unsettling discovery to an overwhelming source of concern when she returned home to Florida.
After receiving the initial diagnosis, Jennifer called both Imani and her friend Gina, who instructed Jennifer to come up to D.C. right away. Gina had been looking forward to visiting her friend the next year in Nigeria, where Jennifer planned to complete the fieldwork for her Ph.D. during the 1996-1997 academic year. “‘Oh my God,’” Gina remembers reacting to the call. “All I could think was, Nine months earlier you lost your mother to a disease that now you’re fighting.”
Jennifer arrived in Washington a few days later. She and Gina consulted for a second opinion with Dr. Robert DeWitty, a well-respected surgical oncologist at Howard University Hospital. According to Gina and family members, DeWitty suggested that Jennifer undergo a lumpectomy, which would surgically remove the cancerous lump from her breast and some lymph nodes, as well. Along with the lumpectomy, though, DeWitty insisted that Jennifer receive radiation treatments.
At that time, Jennifer’s cancer was most likely still in Stage 1which meant that it had not yet spread to other parts of her body. Surgery would remove the cancer and tissue surrounding it, DeWitty warned, but radiation treatments were necessary to prevent the cancer from recurring. Chemotherapy could provide further defense, but DeWitty made it more an option than an ultimatum. Without surgery and medical treatment, the cancer would surely grow. “It’s like you water ityou water it every day by living,” DeWitty says. “The tumor grows from a walnut to a lemon to an apple….It’s like the Blobit just keeps growing.
“If a patient tells me, ‘Doc, take out the lump but I don’t want radiation therapy,’ I might suggest that she see another physician,” DeWitty continues. “I know the recurrence rate is so high.”
According to the American Cancer Society, women under age 45, like Jennifer, who pursue conventional medical treatment for breast cancer have an 81 percent survival rate after five years. But doctors speculate that women who suffer breast cancer at an early age have a lower long-term survival rate, because the disease may be more aggressive and less responsive to conventional therapies.
Jennifer had expressed concerns about both radiation and chemotherapy, and about the doctors’ belief that the collateral destruction of healthy cells that accompanies both therapies is the best route to wellness. She thought there might be another path. “She told me that she wanted to cure everything, and if she went that route it would only be a Band-Aid approach,” her friend Okolo remembers. “She wanted to be cured completely.”
Gina asked DeWitty if Jennifer could borrow some of his medical textbooks, so she could digest the medical information in depth. DeWitty agreed. “That’s when I relinquished myself,” says Gina. “[I thought,] She’s going to read through this and make the best choices.”
Jennifer had always left no stone unturned. In college and graduate school, she had been the type of student who completed not only the required reading, but the supplemental work as well. She even read the list of ingredients on packages in the supermarket.
Gina assumed that Jennifer would get the lumpectomy. Others did as well.
And they had good reason to draw that conclusion. Jennifer told Okolo that she had decided to get the surgery, Okolo remembers. Jennifer told another close friend the same thing. She just needed to take a few days to meditate, Jennifer told Okolo, and then she would call her friend with more details.
After five days, Jennifer still hadn’t called. Much later, she sent Okolo an e-mail, which she had hoped would give Okolo insight into her decision-making:
I sat there and opened up to myself and had what might be called a profound healing experience….I travelled inside of my body. I had travelled inside before but was scared by some of what I saw and felt and had to leave before more could be revealed to me….I have continued this journey deeper and deeper all the time…going within and having more intense participation from ME. And it was very intense and transforming. I knew that whatever else happened, I had to talk with ME some more and listen to ME because ME had been trying to get my attention for some time.
Jennifer phoned Yemi during that time as well. “‘Think about it hard and pray on it, and you can decide what you want to do,’” Yemi remembers telling Jennifer. “She called us back after that period. She said she wanted our help in helping her take care of herself better.”
First there were kiwis. Cases and cases of kiwis, family and friends remember quite vividly. Sliced kiwi. Chopped kiwi. Kiwi juice. “We were all kiwied out,” Gina recalls.
Later there was avocado. Lots and lots of avocado.
Jennifer had kicked the process into high gear, and she seemed in equally soaring spirits. She had returned to Gainesville in the spring of 1997 and started planning a December wedding in Jamaica with her fiancé, Nigel Austin, who was also a graduate student at the University of Florida. (He declined to be interviewed for this story.) Jennifer’s friend Paula Stanley had even looked into buying the couple a raw wedding cake, packed with fruits and sprouts and other natural foods.
After more than a year in Greensboro, N.C., where Nigel had gotten a teaching position at Guilford College, the Austins moved to Washington. Nigel had resisted at first, nervous about relocating without a source of income. Jennifer persuaded him in the end.
The Drayton family then celebrated another wedding, in August 1999. This time it was Brian’s, and all the siblings came out to California for the festivities. Jennifer looked very skinnytoo skinny, family members thoughtbut she made herself the life of the party, as usual. She was kissing and hugging everyone. It must have been excruciating, family members later realized, because the lump in her breast had begun to grow and ooze an unpleasant discharge. Jennifer had bandaged it with gauze.
“That was the first time I had looked at Jennifer and I could really see everything that was going on. I was totally freaked out. Then I was mad,” Imani says. “I was mad because what I see is my sister really ill and that she’s in denial about this, and we can’t even talk about it.”
Even though she was gregarious, Jennifer had a deeply reticent side as well. “Jennifer was really, really private,” notes Okolo. “She wouldn’t tell anything. I told her that I thought she was too private.”
During her four-year bout with breast cancer, Jennifer refrained from giving out any details about her therapy and treatment, telling close friends and family only that “the process” was working. “Yemi-speak,” Imani calls it.
Jennifer and Nigel lived in Imani’s old house on Tuckerman Street in Hyattsville. Her sister had hung on to the property, hoping to make money from it as a rental. She and her husband were in the midst of painting when Jennifer and Nigel moved in. The paint fumes made Jennifer feel sick. And dust from incomplete ceiling work aggravated Nigel’s asthma. After years of happiness for Imani and her husband, the house seemed to bring nothing but sickness to the Austins.
So in November 1999, Jennifer joined Yemi and Hank at their part-time home in Cottonwood, Ala., near the Florida panhandle. Nigel stayed behind in Washington. Jennifer had been to Cottonwood before, to attend wellness retreats where Yemi instructed on herbs and food preparation. Yemi says that this visit was unusual, however. “It was a situation where a person needed support, and we were there to give her the support she needed,” Yemi explains. “She didn’t want to be in the environment that she was living in.”
Family and friends had assumed that Jennifer had gone down to Cottonwood for a vacation of sorts, to breathe in the country air and assist Yemi and Hank in growing their herbs and tending to their gardens. At one point during her five-month stay, Jennifer’s friend Paula called to check on her friend. “‘Girl, I’m not doing anything,’” Jennifer told Paula when they spoke. “‘I’m mostly staying still.’”
Jennifer had always been frenetic. “That said something to me right there,” Paula recalls.
Imani called after hearing frightening eyewitness reports of Jennifer’s condition from Nigel, who visited his wife in Cottonwood in February. “Nigel’s an alarmist,” Jennifer told her sister. “I’m OK, and when you see me, you’ll see I’m OK.”
Jennifer moved back to the Washington area within a few weeks, in March. But she did not return to her husband or her family. Instead, she moved with Yemi and Hank into Yemi’s sister’s house in Fort Washington, Md. She slept in an upstairs bedroom, on a foam mattress padded with a quilt or two, directly on the floor. At that time, she weighed about 85 pounds.
Imani started sending out distress calls to family members, informing them of Jennifer’s severe physical decline and urging them to visit. Julia, along with two of Jennifer’s other friends now living in New York, Judith King-Calnek and Nia Love, heard the news and made the road trip in June. Imani had cautioned the women that Jennifer’s appearance might be shocking. “We thought we were going to find her huddled in bed,” recalls Judith.
Gina met the women in the driveway, and they walked around to the back yard. There was Jennifer, sitting in the sunshine. She looked very thin, the women noticed, but somehow radiant. “It was like the sun wasn’t shiningit was like she was reflecting off the leaves,” Judith remembers from that afternoon. “It was like she was shedding her body, and her spirit was shining through.”
“Even in her emaciated state, there was a beauty about her,” agrees Julia.
The women detected an odor, though. It wasn’t overbearing, because they were sitting outside, but it was very noticeable. It smelled foul, like cow manure or the indescribable reek that wafts out of a biology lab. Jennifer told her friends that she was very self-conscious about the odor. Even though she had her breast bound by some kind of wrapping, the cancer had burst through the surface of her skin. What the women were most likely smelling, says DeWitty, was dead tissue.
The visit lasted about an hour, with the women all forming a prayer circle at the end. Nia cried as she pulled the car out of the driveway, Julia remembers. The friends knew that they were saying a final goodbye to Jennifer. Even as they drove away, the odor clung to their clothes like cigarette smoke.
Not once during any of their visits with her last summer, family and friends say, did Jennifer even hint at the possibility of her own imminent death. “My family thinks I’m dying. Do you believe that, Okolo?” Jennifer asked when Okolo helped her move to Gina’s house in August. “They think that. Can you believe that?”
Jennifer repeated the question one more time to Okolo.
“Why do you think they say you’re dying?” Okolo asked gently.
Jennifer let her eyelids fall, and her voice became very soft and whispery, like a little girl’s. “‘Cause I lost all this weight and I have pain, and because I have difficulty breathing,” Jennifer answered. “But, Okolo, the only reason I have difficulty breathing is because of the toxins.”
“I said, ‘Jennifer, well, that makes sense,’” Okolo remembers. “‘Because we don’t know what this process is.’”
Did Jennifer ever confide to you that she felt she was dying? I ask Yemi during one of our interviews.
“It was not our job to keep Jennifer alive,” Yemi replies. “It was our job to support her wellness. It’s not our decision to make whether Jennifer lives or dies. Don’t people die in hospitals and around the world? The best thing we can do is to help people feel at a higher level of wellness when they are alive.”
So was Jennifer at a high point of wellness when she died?
“That’s ridiculous,” Yemi says. “There’s no question what we did was beneficial,” she adds. “When she did pass, she was lucid and did not have a lot of pain.”
While Jennifer slowly withered at Verbena Street, her family began to discuss strategies for removing her from Yemi and Hank’s care. “We need to go in there, intervene, and get her out,” Pamm argued. There was talk of lawsuits and possibly even declaring Jennifer legally incompetent. But Jennifer was too in control, too lucid for that plan to work.
In response, Jennifer asked Gina, a notary public certified in the state of Maryland, to help her craft an affidavit explaining her decision to decline conventional medical treatment in favor of naturopathic care. Jennifer had been working on the affidavit for weeks, Yemi later told me. Friends and family members contend that Yemi repeatedly asked Jennifer to complete and notarize the document. Yemi, however, denies this charge, adding that she did not encourage Jennifer to write the affidavit.
Yemi and Hank confronted the family directly about other matters. Sometime in the summer, the couple had started pressing Nigel for the approximately $1,800 in monthly payments for their efforts. Until then, Jennifer had been paying the couple with her own funds, primarily from money left her in her mother’s will. When she first ran out of money, she asked family and friends for assistance. “I can tell you that this therapy does cost money, although over the four years, I have spent less than I would have on one radiation treatment,” Jennifer wrote in an e-mail plea, which netted a few thousand dollars. “[A]fter 4 years of following this program and the past six months of daily intensive therapy, I have exhausted all savings and other financial resources.”
Yemi describes Jennifer’s payments as contributions, somewhere in the range of $60 per day. “What is $60 a day if they need you and you support her and supply her food?” Yemi says. Yemi says that she and Hank received no remuneration for the last month Jennifer stayed in their care.
When Nigel refused to make these payments, family members say, Hank reprimanded him for leaving Hank to support “two wivesyours and mine.” Frustrated about the lack of access to his ailing wife, Nigel reluctantly accepted a teaching job at the University of Illinois. He took the position to earn money and obtain health insurance, which he and Jennifer had lacked in Washington.
Brian decided to take action with the prayer vigil, as well as with an e-mail group that he named “Jennifer_cancer,” which grew into a poignant forum where participants grappled with their own conflicted reactions to the choices Jennifer had made. On the same day as his first prayer vigil, Brian sent out a message to all of Jennifer’s family and friends for whom he had e-mail addresses:
Jennifer Drayton has been suffering a grave injustice for too long now! Under the reclusive care and supervision of Yemi and Hank Jones (Jennifer’s healing guides) she has plumeted into a world of malnutrition and denial and abuse. Her breast cancer has progressed to the point of eminent fatality and she has been isolated from her husband, family, and friends. Jennifer must go through this transition with dignity and humanity. We must come together to collect resources and provide her with maximum comfort and 100% faith that she will transition in the grace and love of her community, god, and family. If we don’t act soon to setup hospice and medical intervention on her non-cancerous symptoms there will be no life for her or any one else to actualize.
Bo responded to Brian’s message that same afternoon:
I believe Jennifer is more intelligent than most and she understood the risks before she made her choices. I admire her….Now the system appears to be failing and I wish I could do something but it is much too late to change her treatment methods to conventional medicine. Switching gears at this point for Jennifer would mean giving up her life’s greatest struggle. I am certain that surrendering her will would mean certain death with no dignity or humanity for her soul.
Imani reacted to Bo two days later:
As you know, I do not agree at all with the choices Jennifer has made to work exclusively with Yemi to address her cancer. But I do believe that a person has the right to choose how he or she lives and/or dies. I have no problem supporting Jennifer’s right to choose. But, it is also my responsibility as a caring relation to ensure that there is a base level of care and attention. What I am concerned more about in this scenario is a growing co-dependency between Yemi and Jennifer that has no logical center and is resulting in dangerous and inhumane treatment. I believe that Jennifer, beset with pain and the fear of her death is no longer making clear and rational decisions about the quality of her health. The struggle comes because she trusts no one but Yemi to make health care decisions for her and I am convinced that her comfort and well being is not a concern of Yemi’s.
Jennifer moved to Gina’s house two days after Brian began the e-group. The first morning she spent alone with Jennifer, Gina awoke to find water bottles strewn all over her hallway. Gina peeked into her bedroom and saw that Jennifer was sitting up stiffly, as if she had just seen a ghost. For the last six hours, Jennifer then told Gina, she had been lobbing the bottles at her sleeping friend in a futile attempt to wake her. She had been in distress.
Jennifer surrendered on the issue of acquiring a hospital bed, and she later agreed to accept care from a hospice nurse when Gina insisted that she, Okolo, and a few other friends couldn’t handle Jennifer’s care by themselves. Yemi and Hank visited frequently, dropping off raw foods and unleavened bread and tonics. But Jennifer’s family and friends largely took over the moment-to-moment care. That included a delicate routine of bathing Jennifer, cleaning out her bedpan, and applying her many oils. Once, when Jennifer was directing Okolo how to apply the oils, Jennifer suddenly whispered, “Emergency.” Okolo, already stressed by the emotional strain of caring for her friend, ran to Imani in a panic. But the two soon realized that Jennifer was merely requesting a special oil named Emergency.
Jennifer’s decisions about her care, and her inexorable decline, had taken their toll on friends and family. “Sometimes when I’m around Jennifer, I feel as though I must ‘play along’ with the whole ‘recovery’ thing and secretly wish that she’d just admit that things are deteriorating so the charade can end,” Okolo confided in an Aug. 30 e-mail message to friends. “Jennifer owes me none of that and I’m just being selfish about how this is affecting mesomething Jennifer has complained about…other people feeling as though this is about them.”
At 8:23 p.m. last Sept. 1, Jennifer Drayton Austin’s body, ravaged by breast cancer, finally succumbed. She was with Imani and Okolo as she took her last breath. Moments before, she had taken a few sips of one of Yemi’s tonics, a brownish liquid that looked like soy sauce.
Jennifer remained in control right to the end. “She was more committed to that process, that treatment, than she was to living,” Okolo says. “People would say, ‘Do you think she’s brainwashed?’ If anyone was doing the brainwashing, it’s Jennifer. She was that powerful.” In her last days, Okolo says, Jennifer referred to Yemi and Hank as her “tools.”
The affidavit Jennifer left behind was her final testament.
I, Jennifer Drayton Austin, being 36 years old of firm mind and sound judgment have made some very deliberate decisions about my health care since my diagnosis of Breast Cancer in 1996.
I affirm my right to decide to follow a non-medical course of treatment which rely’s on the bodies natural ability to heal. I have rejected conventional medical prodical for normal treatment such as radiation, chemotherapy, surgery and have elected not to seek medical consultation.
Support for my non-medical approach has been and will continue to be provided by Yemi and Hank Jones. I ask all those concerned with my will support my decision by allowing me to go through with my healing choices.
Jennifer persuaded two friends to witness the document. Nigel, Imani, and Brian all refused.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Bill Koeb.