Cason: Doctor put her own life on the line for patients

November 24, 2007

Colleen Cason, Ventura County Star (CA)

The easy way is to follow the path of least resistance. But that was not Dr. Claudia Jensen's way.

She trod the harder, rockier route taken by those whose conscience won't let them coast.

The Ventura physician's good fight ended Sept. 15 when she died of breast cancer at age 52 in a Mission Viejo hospital.

She left behind two daughters — ages 17 and 20 — hundreds of patients and a legacy of doing what her heart told her to do.

In 1996, Jensen was an early critic of the patient care delivered by HMOs. Eventually, she lost her job after she questioned the quality of care offered by the medical group she worked for. Believing she was let go unfairly, she was the first doctor to test a then-new state statute forbidding retaliation against physicians who advocate for their patients.

She could have settled, but she took it all the way to trial. She lost, and it cost her dearly financially.

She then found a new cause, one she believed in even more passionately.

In the words of political columnist Molly Ivins, another brave soul who died this year of breast cancer, Jensen chose to "raise more hell."

Educated at the University of Arkansas College of Medicine and an instructor at USC Keck School of Medicine, Jensen became a proponent of the use of medical marijuana — legal in this state since 1996.

She even dared to advocate the use of pot by teenagers. Specifically teenagers with attention deficient disorders so severe their lives were in tatters. Cannabis, she believed, was far more effective and safe for ADD than the more commonly prescribed Ritalin.

And on April Fools' Day 2004, she was asked to testify before a less than simpatico Congressional subcommittee about her unconventional approach.

If the officials expected some aging hippie chick or slacker dudette, they were in for a surprise. She looked every bit the well-settled suburban woman.

"I am the 49-year-old mother of two teenage daughters," she began her testimony.

She explained the dosage could be monitored so patients would not be going through their days stoned.

When asked how she knew cannabis worked, she replied, "because I listen to my patients."

And so she did.

"She was a caring, compassionate person who took the time to let you know you mattered," said Harold, a former patient who asked that his last name not be used.

Compassionate, yes. A pushover, no.

The Ventura man sought her out in 2001 when he was undergoing treatment with Interferon for the Hepatitis C he contracted through his years of drug abuse. She prescribed medical marijuana to ease his severe side effects but had his urine checked to make sure he had no other drugs in his system.

Today, he said, he is 10 years clean and sober and free of the Hepatitis C because he was able to complete the rigorous treatment.

With Jensen, the angel of mercy was in the details, said another patient, Dar — who also asked that his last name not be used.

Disabled by severe back problems that prevented him from sleeping more than a couple of hours a night, he also sought out Dr. Jensen for a medical marijuana prescription. She prescribed the cannabis but insisted he change his lifestyle. She coached him to eat a healthier diet, follow through on his physical therapy and give up soda pop.

"In this cattle-call world of medicine, I mattered to her. She was available to patients day and night," he said, adding that she would call him to check on his progress.

Jensen never seemed to have time to talk about her own illness, Dar noted.

And on Sept. 1, deep into her battle against cancer, she checked into the hospital with her briefcase and her laptop, prepared to keep up her practice from her bed.

Her fiancé, Bob Chade, thought the stay would be short. She just needed to be rehydrated and to start eating again.

But she never made it out, said Chade, who has known her five years.

Surrounded by her daughters Amani and Alia, she said she didn't want to leave them.

Chade encouraged her to go to sleep.

It's hard to know why some of us take the unconventional path.

But if anyone could do it, said Chade, it was Claudia Jensen.

"People who didn't really know her thought she was the wacky weed doctor. But her colleagues trusted her because her knowledge of medicine was solid."

I suppose some would say a marijuana proponent took the high road. In Jensen's case, she certainly gave that phrase new meaning.

— E-mail this Star columnist at ccason@Venturacountystar.com



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