[ Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

Lifestyle on Trial

World Beater: Kris Humphrey's passion for self-determination and fear of the medical establishment led her to a fatal experiment with an herbal abortifacient.

Kris Humphrey heard about inducing abortion 'naturally' using the herb pennyroyal, but unusual circumstances led to her death--and to what some say is a lawsuit that would have Kris rolling in her grave

By Gordon Young

Michael Humphrey didn't know his daughter was pregnant when a phone call to his San Mateo home jarred him awake at four in the morning. Within 20 minutes, he was on Interstate 280 speeding to San Jose Medical Center.

"I intercepted one of the doctors at the elevator," Humphrey recalls. "He shook his head and told me he'd never seen someone in this condition. She just wasn't responding to the efforts they made. The doctor seemed somewhat bewildered."

Kris Humphrey had been a semester short of earning a sociology degree in July 1994, just eight weeks before her father's anxious trip to the hospital. The 24-year-old didn't want a child, but she didn't want a clinical abortion, either. She had already gone through one abortion and, according to a housemate, had "experienced a lot of pain and personal indifference."

"They treated her like she was doing something wrong, something she should be ashamed of," says one of Kris' friends. "It was not the kind of treatment you'd expect at Planned Parenthood. It was amazing."

Kris also carried the painful memory of her stepbrother's death, which compounded her fear of traditional Western medicine. Danny Bilmes was a 20-year-old SJSU student in 1989 when a tree limb crushed the car in which he was traveling with two friends, breaking three vertebrae. While being fitted for a halo at San Jose Medical Center, one of the screws needed to keep the brace in place struck a nerve in his head. Danny survived the hospital miscue but regularly took strong painkillers after the accident. After switching to a new painkiller in 1992, he died of an allergic reaction to the drug.

"Kris was devastated by her stepbrother's death," recalls Kris' mother, Embee Humphrey, as she lights a cigarette, a habit her daughter often chided her about. "After that she really didn't trust doctors anymore."

Although distraught over Danny's death and highly skeptical of the medical profession that treated him, Kris remained an energetic, outgoing optimist who believed there was no situation she couldn't handle. After learning she was pregnant for the second time, Kris arrived at a solution she believed would preserve her values and autonomy.

A vegetarian who used medicinal herbs to treat minor ailments, Kris opted for a "natural" abortion. Relying on friends' advice and information she gleaned from books on herbal remedies, she began drinking tea mixed with pennyroyal extract and black cohosh root, two herbs readily available at most health-food stores and well known in homeopathic medicine.

It was hardly a novel approach to terminating a pregnancy. The Greek dramatist Aristophanes identified pennyroyal as an abortifacient as far back as 421 B.C.E., and many women with even a passing familiarity with herbs know about the method. Although the Roe v. Wade decision gave women a safer legal option, pennyroyal is still used to terminate pregnancy by some women knowledgeable about medicinal herbs.

"I've tried it more than once and been successful," confides a friend whom Kris consulted about ending the pregnancy and who directed her to Susun Weed's book Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year. "Kris asked me what I had done and I explained it to her. I told her to follow the recipe in the book. She was really desperate not to have a child, but she wanted to handle things herself without going to a doctor. Having control over her own body and her own reproductive cycle is something she desired."

What Kris couldn't have known by talking with friends, reading a book, or relying on her own instincts was that she had an ectopic pregnancy. A tubal pregnancy, as it is commonly called, occurs when a fertilized ovum develops in a fallopian tube rather than the uterus. Ectopic pregnancies pose a danger even to women who are under full medical care, because they can often result in infection, hemorrhaging, the rupture of a fallopian tube or, in rare cases, the loss of an ovary. For Kris, who was going it alone, it proved fatal.

Kris' overriding desire for independence collided with circumstances beyond her control. The antipathy Kris and her friends held for traditional medicine caused them to ignore obvious danger signals, especially during the last days of Kris' life. Kris' strained relationship with her parents made it difficult for her family to help her. Government regulations impeded wary herb manufacturers from using labeling information that might have saved Kris' life. And the fear which often transforms a legal medical procedure like abortion into a dramatic ordeal likely contributed toward her choice of an unconventional technique.

Finally, Kris probably mistook the warning signs of her ectopic pregnancy--abdominal pain and cramping--as an indication that the pennyroyal tea was working.

"She probably assumed the pennyroyal was doing its job," speculates the friend who offered Kris guidance. "We didn't think anything was wrong with her. And I don't think she did either."

    Sit and drink pennyroyal tea
    Distill the life inside me
    Sit and drink pennyroyal tea
    I'm anemic royalty
    Give me a Leonard Cohen
    So I can sigh eternally.

    --Nirvana, "Pennyroyal Tea"

It's almost too easy to make Kris Humphrey out to be another Gen-X casualty, a twentysomething who fell victim to the nihilism the late Kurt Cobain explored so well in his lyrics. The song, from Nirvana's final studio album, In Utero, so closely mirrors the way Kris died that it's difficult not to link her with its defeatist message.

Portraying her as a "Grateful Dead chick"--a description privately offered by one attorney involved in a lawsuit filed by her parents after her death on Aug. 14, 1994--is equally easy. Kris was devoted to a passel of liberal causes and embraced the '60s mantra of "one world, one people, one family," according to friends and relatives. With wild hair and a taste for T-shirts and Guatemalan pants, she looked the part.

KNTV Channel 11 reporter Beth Willon opted for the ubiquitous "counterculture" tag to describe Kris in a news segment on her death. Willon backed it up with footage of Kris getting a tongue piercing to accompany several others she already had on various body parts. The footage was convenient; KNTV had done a story on piercing that featured Kris several months earlier.

These portrayals fall flat among those who were close to Kris. Most of her friends are reluctant even to talk about her death because, as one put it, the "media is only interested in bullshit, not the truth." When they would talk, they uniformly requested that their names not be used. In their eyes, the media has unfairly blamed alternative medicine for Kris' death.

Kris' parents expressed bitterness at the way their daughter was represented in news accounts, but for a different reason. For them, the young woman on the television--pierced and unkempt--wasn't the "real" Kris. They were wary that Kris' image would be further skewed by another article.

"She was just a wonderful person, so it upsets me the way she was portrayed," says Embee Humphrey, as she sits at the dining room table of her San Jose home and leafs through scrapbooks dedicated to her only child. "I just didn't think it was appropriate to show Kris getting a piercing during a story about her death. It didn't matter if she was on the honor roll. It didn't matter if she was a caring, talented person. It made it look like piercing was the only thing in her life."

She stops and takes a deep breath, steadying herself. "She was independent; she was different; so they made it seem like she was evil or white trash or something."

The early morning trip to the hospital had been all too familiar for Mike Humphrey--a lanky, unassuming computer engineer--and his second wife, Lila Bilmes. "Kris was in the same receiving room that Danny had been in," Bilmes says. "It was like a nightmare all over again."

After Kris died, a hospital social worker suggested that Mike Humphrey take legal action. Humphrey knew who to call. Personal injury attorney Allen Fleishman had won an out-of-court settlement from the city of San Jose after Danny died.

Fleishman wasted little time. Kris had been dead for less than a week when he filed suit on behalf of Michael Humphrey and Embee Humphrey--who joined the suit with her former husband--charging Massachusetts-based Gaia Herbs, the pennyroyal manufacturer, and Bread of Life, the Campbell store where Kris allegedly purchased the herbs, with negligence, product liability and wrongful death. In addition to unspecified damages, the suit demands warning labels on pennyroyal cautioning pregnant women not to use the product.

"I hope the lawsuit will send a message to herb manufacturers and health-food stores," says Mike Humphrey, who scoured Peninsula health-food stores after Kris died to gauge the popularity of pennyroyal. Before visiting his daughter in the hospital, he had never heard of the herb. "Pennyroyal isn't the harmless, natural, alternative medicine that people might think."

The Humphreys' lawsuit will hinge on whether Kris died from an ectopic pregnancy--as the lawyers for Gaia Herbs and Bread of Life maintain--or if pennyroyal caused or contributed to her death. The attorneys for each side have already lined up medical experts to support their positions. While Fleishman is confident the case can be settled out of court, the attorneys defending the suit say that's not likely. The case would probably not go to trial until next fall.

Regardless of the outcome, Kris' friends complain that the lawsuit is an insult to her memory. Kris embraced herbal remedies, they point out, welcoming them as a viable way to take care of herself. Like the media reports on Kris' death, the lawsuit is viewed by many friends as further proof that mainstream society simply doesn't understand alternative lifestyles.

"Kris Humphrey would be rolling over in her grave if she knew she had put herbs and herbal medicines in a bad light," comments friend Ted Gehrke. "She believed in herbs. They were an important part of her life."

Although he is representing the parents in this case, attorney Allen Fleishman says he personally understands Kris and her friends.

"Kris had a certain disdain for her parents because she saw them as being bourgeois," Fleishman offers. "At the same time, her parents really stood by her while she was getting her tongue pierced and her nose pierced and everything else."

Fleishman stops to pull out a photo album containing an old color snapshot of him with long hair and a scraggly beard seated in a field of flowers.

"She's somebody I can identify with because I was in the counterculture movement myself," relates Fleishman, now well-groomed and middle-aged. "I'm not after the herbal industry. I'm after the more responsible sale of herbs.

"There is an underground belief system that says 'Don't listen to the establishment. Go ahead and use pennyroyal for an abortion. Many people who use it may actually abort and then stop taking the pennyroyal. But in Kris Humphrey's situation there was no end. She's waiting for an abortion that will never happen because she has an ectopic pregnancy. Pennyroyal is a very lethal drug that's sold as an herb, and it should have a warning label."

Tea and Sympathy: The tea Kris Humphrey made from Pennyroyal extract may have caused her death.

Pennyroyal is a thin, gangly plant that reaches from six to 18 inches high and produces clusters of lavender flowers. According to the CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs, it possesses "a strong peculiar odor resembling that of spearmint, but less agreeable." As for taste, Varro Tyler, a professor of pharmacognosy at Purdue University, writes that pennyroyal "has little to recommend it." Perhaps it is these properties that make it such an effective insect repellent.

Despite its less-than-pleasant taste and odor, pennyroyal has been called on to serve a variety of medicinal purposes. While Kurt Cobain used it to settle his stomach as well as lyrical fodder for his songs, it also has been touted as a cure for fainting, flatulence, gall ailments, gout and hepatitis. At one time or another, it has served as a lung cleanser, a gum strengthener and, when ground with vinegar, a tumor remedy. Pennyroyal is better known, however, as an emmenagogue, or a substance that promotes menstrual flow. This is often used as a euphemism for an abortifacient.

"My guess is that pennyroyal probably does work as an abortifacient," says Dr. Sidney Nelson, a medicinal chemist at the University of Washington-Seattle. Nelson has studied the chemical effects of herbs in the past and is consulting the Santa Clara County coroner's office on the Kris Humphrey case. "It's been used since ancient Egyptian times, and I've gotten calls from individuals who say it does work and given me dosage recommendations. The embryology group at the University of Washington used pennyroyal on animal models. They said it works, but the amount needed is very close to the toxic level."

The use of pennyroyal to combat unwanted pregnancies was so popular in Greek and Athenian society that Aristophanes made puns on the word in his plays Lysistrata (411 BC) and Peace (421 BC). A more contemporary reference is found in Slogum House, a 1937 book written by Mari Sandoz: "She was the fifth of twelve children in the river-bottom family, with a mother who laid the cards and brewed tansy, pennyroyal and like concoctions for luckless girls who were in need." A 1988 album by the Yeastie Girlz, a Bay Area band with a feminist bent, included an abortion recipe containing pennyroyal in the liner notes. "If you think you're pregnant, or if you're just late getting your period, here's an ancient remedy you might consider," the instructions read. "You've got to be sure to not overdo it, because in heavy doses this stuff could make you very ill." Of course, Nirvana made pennyroyal a household word in 1994 when the song "Pennyroyal Tea" was featured on the band's well-known MTV Unplugged release. Lead singer Kurt Cobain reportedly drank it for chronic stomach ailments.

"Everyone who hung out with us knows about pennyroyal," explains one of Kris' friends. "It's not like some mysterious, secret thing."

Susun Weed's Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year is by far the most popular guide to using pennyroyal as a means of ending pregnancy. Originally published in 1986, it is currently in its 22nd printing and has sold more than 100,000 copies. In addition to detailed information on a variety of herbs for numerous uses, it features a recipe for an "Emmenagogue Combination" containing a mixture of blue cohosh, black cohosh and pennyroyal. It is likely Kris loosely followed this recipe, probably omitting the blue cohosh. A short passage devoted to pennyroyal states that it is "reasonably safe to try to abort with pennyroyal."

Weed's book was a popular item in the small house at 180 E. William St. in San Jose where Kris lived before she died. With its overgrown yard and peeling paint, the house looks abandoned, but it is a popular gathering spot.

"Whenever somebody doesn't have a place to lay their head, I open my doors," Robin Daniels, who rents the house and acts as an unofficial property manager, stated in a deposition taken in connection with the lawsuit. "Just so my friends aren't ... subject to the world out there. ... I have an abundance of rooms and places."

Before her death, Kris was sharing a rent-free room in the house with her boyfriend, Brian Wyatt, while Daniels shared the living room with a companion named Steve Orr. A female friend of Kris' lived in the second bedroom while others dropped in regularly.

"There was a really communal atmosphere," recalls a friend of Kris' who spent a lot of time at the house. "We ate together, played music together, sang songs together. It wouldn't be uncommon for all of us to be dancing with each other in the house. It was very social."

Making friends was never a problem for Kris. With long, light brown hair and a warm, ready smile, she was attractive without being threatening. She was not thin by contemporary standards--her weight fluctuated and she was carrying about 160 pounds on her 5'2" frame at the time of her death. Strangers often reeled off their life stories to Kris, according to her mother. They just seemed to trust her. It makes sense that her social life extended well beyond the circle that hung out at the house on East William.

"She had all kinds of different friends from different backgrounds," says one friend. "She didn't limit herself to one group or one type of person."

Kris met a lot of people--from frat boys to artists--during the more than two years she actively worked on the SJSU program board. She helped plan the school's film festival as a junior and served as the performing arts director and multicultural chairwoman her senior year.

"We tend to look for people who are open-minded, and who are not shrinking violets," confirms Ted Gehrke, SJSU Program Board adviser for the past 23 years. "Kris was just one of the all-time prototypes. She was completely interested in just about everything. She was one of the most open people to new friendships and new personalities I've ever encountered. I don't just mean students, I mean everybody. She was like a little bolt of sunshine."

Gehrke pauses before continuing: "The thing I remember most is her smile. It was beautiful and ..." His voice catches and there's a short silence. "I'm sorry. I just can't talk about it anymore."

Program Board Executive Director Colleen Pon, who was interviewed by Kris for a spot on the board her freshman year, dedicated last year's board activities to the memory of Kris.

"She believed in artists and art so much," Pon says. "It's rare for someone to go as far out of their way as Kris did. She really worked to promote program board shows and activities."

Kris also cast a wide net when it came to social causes. She traveled to Nevada to demonstrate against nuclear testing. She marched in support of gays and lesbians in San Francisco. She visited Native American reservations to join in protests.

"She always championed the underdog," recalls Embee Humphrey. "I wouldn't be surprised to hear that she chained herself to a redwood tree. She believed that to live on this earth you had to take responsibility for it. She was constantly razzing me because I didn't believe in anything strong enough to fight for it."

Kris also studied capoeria and performed the Brazilian martial art during the opening ceremonies of the 1994 World Cup at Stanford Stadium. She was a member of the Gamelan, an Indonesian percussion group at SJSU.

While Kris reached out to the rest of the world, her relationship with her parents was often troubled. After her parents divorced in the early '70s, Kris spent most of her time with her mother. Embee Humphrey came to California from Oklahoma as a newlywed. She admits it wasn't always easy for her to understand her daughter.

"When she came home with a ring in the side of her nose, my only question was 'why?' " Humphrey says. "She told me she was interested in all cultures and this was her way of showing it. She also said everybody has a different idea of what makes them beautiful and special. She told me, 'This makes me feel beautiful and special.' Well, you can't argue with that. You just can't."

She takes another drag on her cigarette, exhales, and adds with a smile, "Besides, she pointed out that I dye my hair."

A precocious child who attended Harker, Lawrence Academy and Archbishop Mitty High School, Kris liked music, art and French, but not the uniforms required at the private schools. This independent streak manifested itself in other ways as she grew older.

"We had some real battles, and we went through a stage where she couldn't talk to me because I just didn't understand," Embee Humphrey says, noting that she and Kris attended counseling sessions with a psychologist when Kris was in high school. "For a long time Kris wouldn't say 'I love you.' And I remember when I was young there was a long time when I wouldn't tell my parents that I loved them because I wasn't really sure I did. I knew I was supposed to--and I think she knew she was supposed to--but she was trying to separate herself from being my child and become her own person. That's tough.

"She came over to my house once while she was in college and played a song on the piano that I had written and played all the time. She had memorized it. I told her I was really proud of her. I said, 'We've been through some rough times, haven't we?' That was the day she told me that she loved me. And I thought, 'Thank God, things are finally getting better.' "

Embee Humphrey was celebrating her 53rd birthday on Aug. 7, the day she learned that Kris was pregnant and trying to abort with pennyroyal. The pair went to see Forrest Gump.

"I'll never be able to see that movie again," Humphrey says. "Kris went into the restroom before the movie started. When she came out into the lounge she had a clear cup of water and she put a few drops into it. Then she put the two bottles back in her pocket.

"She told me it had worked for two friends. I really didn't think it would hurt her. I didn't think an herb that you can buy at Bread of Life or any number of places could hurt you. She said 'It's natural and safe, Mom. Don't worry about it.' Those were the two words she used--natural and safe.

"The one thing I was concerned about was that she kept holding her side. She said that meant it was working. We were supposed to go out and do something after the movie, but she just wanted to rest. When I took her home that day she lay down in the back seat the entire time."

Embee Humphrey had gone through an ectopic pregnancy of her own when Kris was much younger. The memory deepened her concern.

"One of the things I asked her was whether she knew if it was a normal pregnancy," Humphrey remembers. "I didn't know if a tubal pregnancy was passed on from generation to generation, and I didn't want her to experience that pain. It's excruciating. She said that she knew tubal pregnancies were not hereditary. But, thinking back on it, she never did tell me. She never did answer me outright."

Some of her friends say Kris would have known she had an ectopic pregnancy if doctors at the San Jose State Student Health Center--where she went for a pregnancy test approximately eight weeks before her death--had checked for the condition.

"The doctors should have looked for the ectopic pregnancy when she went to the clinic," asserts one friend who blames the clinic, not pennyroyal, for Kris' death. "She never would have taken pennyroyal if she had known it was not a normal pregnancy."

It is not standard procedure, however, for physicians to check for an ectopic pregnancy when a patient comes in for a pregnancy test unless symptoms, such as abdominal pain, are present, according to Dr. Phillip Warner, who has practiced obstetrics and gynecology in Los Gatos for 30 years.

Dr. Robert Latta, director of the SJSU clinic, was reluctant to discuss Kris' case, citing confidentiality concerns. He did say that Kris was referred to Planned Parenthood after her pregnancy test because the clinic does not offer prenatal care. Kris, however, never followed up. Latta would not comment when asked if Kris complained of abdominal pain. He added, however, that Kris received proper care at the clinic.

Kris told her mother she was going to finish taking the pennyroyal on Tuesday--two days after they saw Forrest Gump--and she would call her mother to let her know how she was doing. Humphrey never heard from her daughter again. The anger Embee feels over her daughter's death sometimes surfaces, but the anguish the event caused her is more obvious. The occasional edge in her voice is quickly replaced by a weary, defeated quality.

"I asked her three or four times to come and stay at my house, and we could look into other options," Humphrey says. "She said no, and I'd learned from experience you couldn't argue with Kris once she made up her mind. I would have had to kidnap her."

Kris went to Music in the Park, a free evening concert in downtown San Jose, on Aug. 11. It was just three days before she died.

"She was pale and wasn't feeling good at all that night," remembers a friend who accompanied her. "She couldn't dance, and she was usually the first person out on the floor dancing. She was getting signs from her body, but she didn't think anything was seriously wrong."

But a friend who had breakfast with Kris on Friday morning said she had "a lot of energy" and looked "better than she had in days." She felt well enough to put in a few hours of work as a housekeeper in Palo Alto during the day. At 6:30pm, Kris and her boyfriend, Brian Wyatt, even stopped by another friend's apartment in San Jose and talked about their plans to see a Cuban band later that evening.

Although she was feeling better, friends admit that Kris had given up on the prospects of aborting with pennyroyal, apparently abandoning her desire to avoid a clinical abortion. Both Kris' mother and another friend had offered to pay for the abortion, and Kris was apparently going to take them up on the offer.

"From everyone I've spoken to and from what I know, Kris was planning on going to Planned Parenthood the next day," the friend who offered Kris advice on how to use pennyroyal says.

When Robin Daniels returned home to the East William Street house from an exhausting 12-hour workday around 7:30pm, her friend's condition had changed dramatically. Kris was lying in bed, pale and feverish. Wyatt and Steve Orr, another person living in the house at the time, attended to her. Daniels noticed that Kris had been vomiting in the bathroom.

"I think for a time I massaged her because I knew that she wasn't feeling well and just said, 'I'm here for you; and I love you; and I'm going to bed,' " Daniels testified in her deposition.

Kris continued to vomit for the next six hours and suffered from chills and cramps. She passed out around 11pm and needed assistance from Wyatt and Orr to move. According to hospital records, Kris was placed in a cold bath around 2am on Saturday because she was hot and sweating. She suffered a seizure in the bathtub and was carried into the kitchen.

"I was very soundly asleep, and I woke up to what I thought was a nightmare but sadly realized it was really happening," Daniels states. " 'She's not breathing' is what I heard Brian scream. I called 911. ... Kristina was laying on my kitchen floor and ... Steve tried to administer CPR ... and it was ... incredibly insane."

Kris still had no pulse when paramedics arrived at 2:27am. According to Daniels, they asked about Kris' tongue piercing before they took over the CPR. "The paramedics were like, 'What's this in her mouth?' " Daniels says during a recent interview. "And in a way it seemed to me that they were really hesitant to do CPR because of her tongue piercing."

Hesitant or not, paramedics managed to get Kris' heart beating en route to San Jose Medical Center, where she was immediately put on a ventilator in the emergency room. The ER staff worked to stabilize Kris through the early morning hours. The case caused a stir among the hospital residents because of its novelty.

"None of us knew what pennyroyal was," says Dr. Reema Jalali, the chief resident who inherited Kris as a patient when she began her shift early Saturday morning. "We called poison control. We looked it up and found out what it is and how it is used."

Robin Daniels gave doctors bottles of both pennyroyal extract and black cohosh that Kris was taking before she died, according to hospital records. Determining just how much she took could be an important issue in the lawsuit, but it will be difficult for anyone to prove. The recipe in Susun Weed's book that Kris may have followed recommends 20 drops of blue cohosh tincture, 20 drops of black cohosh tincture, and 20 drops of pennyroyal tincture in a cup of warm water "every four hours for no more than five days." But friends close to Kris believe she exceeded the dosage.

"I didn't know how long she was taking it, but I reminded her the book said no more than five days," says the friend who offered Kris guidance. "I think she was taking it a lot longer than five days, though. It may have been for ten days."

Kris' fever initially led doctors to suspect that her blood was infected. She was also in shock, a condition not uncommon with infection. Shock causes capillaries to leak fluids and blood vessels to constrict. The doctors also discovered that Kris was suffering from disseminated intravascular coagulopathy, or DIC, a condition that further hampers the body's ability to coagulate blood and often leads to uncontrolled bleeding.

"She was bleeding from everywhere," says Dr Jalali. "She was even bleeding from all the places she was pierced--her nose, her mouth, her brow, her labia. Everywhere."

Kris' bloated stomach indicated a bleeding ectopic pregnancy. The blood flow to the fallopian tube--fed by a major blood vessel--is substantial. The tube will leak and eventually burst if it is not treated. But exploratory surgery was a risky proposition at that point because Kris was so unstable. Odds were good that she would die on the operating table.

A CAT scan of Kris' abdomen was ordered around 9am to gather more information and give Kris more time to stabilize. Shortly after the CAT scan was completed, an announcement was delivered over the hospital intercom: "Code 99, scanner room." Kris' heart had stopped beating.

Dr. Jalali joined a team of residents, nurses and critical care specialists who rushed to the scanner room and attempted to revive Kris. They used electric shock paddles several times and an IV line in Kris' groin--in addition to the IVs already in each arm--to pump in more fluids and medication. It took close to 30 minutes to get a pulse.

"We really had to take some heavy-duty action to revive her," Jalali recalls. "You try harder when someone's 24. You go longer. You're assuming a younger person's stronger and will fight harder.

"I was shocked that she came out of it. But what's coming out of it in her case? Her heart was pumping again, but her blood pressure was zero. She wasn't doing well."

Convinced it was necessary to remove the ectopic pregnancy despite Kris' tenuous condition, the doctors decided to go ahead and operate. According to the San Jose Medical Center's discharge summary, the surgery confirmed "there was a right tubal pregnancy which was not ruptured but was bleeding from the end of the tube. There didn't appear to be any active blood at the time of the exploration and there didn't seem to be any fresh blood." The ectopic pregnancy was removed, along with a "significant quantity of old blood which was malodorous."

"Her pregnancy hadn't grown to the size that would have regularly burst her fallopian tube," Dr. Jalali says. "But the bleeding from the tube got out of control because the pennyroyal had affected her liver and, therefore, affected her coagulation factors. Her body simply wasn't able to control the bleeding. If she hadn't taken pennyroyal, the bleeding wouldn't have been as bad and she wouldn't have gone into shock."

Kris may have survived surgery, but her condition was dire. A doctor, in trying to apprise Embee Humphrey of her daughter's chances for recovery, abandoned the standard medical argot in favor of a simple analogy. "All I remember were his hands," Humphrey says as she intertwines her fingers and then slowly pulls them apart in front of her. "He asked me if I'd ever seen a knit sweater. You know when you stretch it and you get little holes. That's what her arteries and veins are like. The fluid will not stay in. So all the stuff they were pumping into her was just leaking out."

Kris made it through the night, but she showed no signs of improvement. Her pupils were fixed and dilated. She did not respond to pain. A CAT scan and other tests showed little brain activity, most likely the result of both shock and seizure. Dr. Kenneth Blumenfeld, a neurosurgeon, examined her several times on Sunday before deciding that she met the criteria for brain death.

It wasn't a prognosis that was easy for the young residents like Jalali to accept.

"We're these naive little residents saying, 'She's only 24; maybe she can make it,' " Jalali says. "But it was obvious that it wasn't going to happen. It was totally irreversible at that point. Even if she came out it, which was pretty unlikely, she'd have been a vegetable. She wouldn't have been able to breathe on her own unless we breathed for her with a machine."

Family Ties: Embee Humphrey, Kris' mother, leafs through a photo album devoted to her daughter.

Dr. Jalali broke the news to Embee Humphrey, who had spent the night in the hospital. Mike Humphrey had already returned home to San Mateo, but before he left he gave permission to his former wife and the doctors to withdraw life support if necessary.

"There really was no hope at that point," Mike Humphrey says. "I didn't think Kris would want to be here but not really be here."

More than a dozen of Kris' friends gathered in her room with Humphrey while Dr. Jalali and a nurse shut off the IVs, the respirator and other equipment.

"I didn't want to see her die," one friend remembers. "I just ran out of the room and went outside and sat on the sidewalk. I had just seen her on Friday. She was alive and beautiful, and we were talking about what we were going to do over the weekend."

Unlike television dramas, the withdrawing of life support doesn't necessarily result in a speedy departure. Kris stopped breathing immediately, but her heart continued to beat for another 30 minutes.

"There was nothing wrong with her heart," Jalali explains. "It was very strong, and it just kept pumping. I just stood there and kept watching her heart going and going on the screen."

Kris Humphrey was pronounced dead at 4:51pm.

"It was very emotional," says one friend who was in the room. "We all just sat around and cried."

Kris' death came in the midst of an unresolved battle between the Food and Drug Administration and the herbal industry. Until recently, FDA regulations made manufacturers of herbs such as pennyroyal reluctant to use warning labels. They feared that a warning label would prompt the FDA to reclassify their product from a dietary supplement to an over-the-counter drug. Unlike dietary supplements, drugs require expensive testing to gain FDA approval. Manufacturers were unwilling to pay the millions needed for testing because, unlike drugs, herbs can't be patented.

"Manufacturers were in a Catch-22," says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Association in Austin, Texas. "If they used a warning label, they ran into the FDA. If they didn't, they ran into people after the fact who said, 'You should have told us about this. You weren't responsible.' "

The situation changed shortly after Kris Humphrey's death when Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in October 1994. DSHEA allows manufacturers of herbs to use warning labels and offer more explicit directions without entering the bureaucratic quagmire of the FDA. Most are likely to take advantage of the new regulations.

"Herb manufacturers have been begging for the right to use warning labels for years," Blumenthal says. "Now they finally can."

The lawsuit, however, involves far more than just warning labels. A short article that ran in the San Jose Mercury News in August 1994 reported that Fleishman is seeking $15 million in damages.

"I don't have a clue where that figure came from," Fleishman says. "I may have said that--I must have--but I don't remember doing it. If I did it would have been a way to let everybody know we think this is a really big, serious case.

"This has been one of my years for exciting cases," he added, smiling. "I haven't made any money yet, but I'm right on the brink."

Robert Luft, the attorney defending Gaia Herbs, isn't amused by the $15 million dollar sum quoted in the Merc. "The words I would probably use to describe that figure would be outrageous, ridiculous, and I could probably run through about six more."

Luft is working on the case with Archie Robinson, who represents Bread of Life, the independent chain of natural food stores which was purchased by Whole Foods. Luft and Robinson do not believe the labeling issue will play a major role in the suit. They argue that the evidence shows Kris did not ingest enough pennyroyal to cause her death. Instead, she died from a bleeding ectopic pregnancy. They say they already have the medical experts to back up their claim.

"We believe that pennyroyal had absolutely nothing to do with the death," said Archie Robinson from his car phone somewhere on Interstate 280. "One of the risks of an ectopic pregnancy is shock and ultimately death. There is evidence that there was a hemorrhage from the pregnancy."

Bob Luft added, "We don't have any evidence right now that she had such an overwhelming amount of the herb in her that it would have contributed to her death. The odds are that she didn't take very much of it."

Fleishman has a medical expert of his own who he promises will prove that Kris Humphrey "absolutely died from pennyroyal."

Author Susun Weed cautions, however, that the pennyroyal extract Kris consumed should not be confused with highly concentrated pennyroyal oil, which caused the death of a Colorado woman in 1978. The woman, who suspected she was pregnant, was admitted to a Denver hospital two hours after drinking two one-half-ounce bottles of pennyroyal oil.

"Within two hours she vomited blood and bled from the vagina and eyes," Dr. Walter Lewis, a medical botanist, wrote about the case. "By the third day her liver was damaged. On the sixth day, she sank into a coma and died on the seventh day."

Unlike pennyroyal oil, the extract manufactured by Gaia Herbs is made from fresh, undried pennyroyal leaves and 48 percent to 56 percent pure grain alcohol. The bottle recommends "20-40 drops of extract to a small amount of warm water and take 3 times daily as needed." Norman Farnsworth, a research professor of pharmacognosy at the University of Illinois-Chicago, estimates that Humphrey would have had to take approximately 3,000 six-ounce cups of tea made from the Gaia extract to equal just one ounce of essential oil.

"There's not a single recorded case of death or injury from taking any form of pennyroyal except the essential oil," Weed says. "There are some very good controlled scientific studies of people taking pennyroyal tea made with extract, and nothing's ever happened to them. But any essential oil can kill you quite dead."

Hoping to get some indication of the role pennyroyal played in Kris Humphrey's death, the Santa Clara County coroner's office sent blood and liver samples to the University of Washington for testing. Sidney Nelson, a medicinal chemist who has studied the effects of herbs, completed his report in January, but it was far from conclusive.

The major component of pennyroyal is a substance called pulegone. The word is derived from the Latin pulex meaning flea, an acknowledgment of pennyroyal's long history as a bug repellent. Pulegone is converted by enzymes in the liver into a substance known as menthofuran. The menthofuran is converted into still another substance which binds itself to the proteins in the liver and ultimately kills liver cells, according to Nelson.

In other words, Nelson believes that enough pennyroyal will cause liver damage, but he only knows how the process works up to a certain point. He is unwilling to make the airtight pronouncement that attorney Allen Fleishman would like to hear.

"We have enough information at this point to say there certainly was damage to the liver," Nelson said carefully from his Seattle lab. "And the liver contained proteins that were damaged by the reactive metabolite that forms from the pulegone in pennyroyal."

But, Nelson points out, that's not the same as declaring outright that pennyroyal caused Kris' death, that pennyroyal caused liver damage, or even that Kris ingested the herb.

"I couldn't even give an opinion now," Nelson says "I have been contacted by people involved in the legalities of the case, but they haven't asked me to testify. They may be sending me more information and ask me to offer an opinion."

Although she has not been contacted by lawyers involved with the case, Dr. Reema Jalali is more willing to point the finger at pennyroyal.

"[Kris] really didn't stand much of a chance from the beginning," Jalali says. "She had an ectopic pregnancy, and she had an additional insult to the liver from the pennyroyal. I'm not an expert on pennyroyal, but that's my presumption."

Two memorial services were held for Kris Humphrey. One, organized by her friends and held at the Centre for Living With Dying in Santa Clara, featured a biodegradable altar covered with flowers, candles, tea and fruit. There was singing, dancing and poetry reading. Kris loved bellydancing, so two bellydancers performed as a finale to the ceremony. Kris' parents did not attend this memorial, but instead held a more traditional non-sectarian service at Kris' gravesite in Skylawn Memorial Park near Half Moon Bay. She was buried next to her stepbrother, Danny. Many of Kris' friends, in turn, chose to skip the family service. Some say they weren't invited.

The fact that Kris' parents saw her in a different light than her friends did is hardly surprising. Like young adults in every generation, growing up for Kris involved growing into a different person in many ways. But in Kris' case, the divide between friends and family has taken on added significance since her death. While they acknowledge her parents' grief, many of Kris' friends are outraged because they feel the lawsuit against Bread of Life and Gaia Herbs puts Kris' lifestyle--and theirs--on trial. Just as Kris' parents direct their anger over their daughter's death toward pennyroyal vendors via a lawsuit, Kris' friends are lashing out as well.

"This lawsuit just goes to show that her parents didn't really know anything about her," one friend says. "One of the things that pisses us off so much is that the lawyers and her parents come in after the fact and blame all of this on herbs. Kris would never have wanted that to happen."

Another friend adds: "I think Kris felt sorry for her parents in a way. She knew that they really couldn't understand what her life was all about."

While Kris' parents tried to understand the reasons for her herbalism and piercings, they never saw it as a lasting expression of their daughter's life.

"I think all of that was a phase," Embee Humphrey explains. "I think she would have grown out of it if she had lived because deep down she was a fairly conservative girl."

Lila Bilmes, Kris' stepmother, points out that Kris was seriously considering graduate school. "That shows where Kris was headed with her life," she maintains.

In the end, the disagreements don't really matter.

"All I know is that a friend of mine died and no lawsuit is going to bring her back," says Fadi Saba, who knew Kris well. "She's gone."

[ Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the Dec. 14-20, 1995 issue of Metro

This page was designed and created by the Boulevards team.
Copyright © 1995 Metro Publishing and Virtual Valley, Inc.