Ellen Fletcher: Bike activist independent to the end

May 2013

Ellen Fletcher, a former Palo Alto City Council member who led the town’s transformation into a nationally recognized bike-friendly community, was a very independent person. As a child in Nazi Germany, she learned to take care of herself in foster homes and an orphanage before emigrating to London in 1938 via the Kindertransport program, recalled daughter Terry.

In England, she took up the bicycle, which she continued to view as a major source of transportation when she attended Hunter College in New York and later in Palo Alto, where she started being politically active in the 1970s. Terry recalls that it was sometimes hard for her mother to tell that she was important to other people, even her family, “but she knew her activism mattered to people.”

So it wasn’t surprising that Ellen, who also had a son and another daughter, wasn’t initially receptive to hospice care because she thought it was for “when you can’t care for yourself at all.” Terry said her mother only agreed to hospice when her lung cancer symptoms became more painful and she needed more help.

“She talked a lot about wanting to die,” recalled Terry, adding that stopped shortly after Ellen met with Mission Hospice & Home Care nurse Jane Tobin.

“Basically, she was feeling so intensely uncomfortable physically that she was desperate to be relieved of it all,” said Tobin. “She wasn’t able to breathe, speak, concentrate or even have normal mobility due to her illness. This was intolerable for such an intelligent, active woman. I offered symptom relief choices for her to accept, or not.”

Tobin said that as Ellen became more comfortable due to the pain management plan developed for her, “she decided to let nature unfurl, rather than feeling the only way out of pain was to die immediately.”

Over the months Ellen was in hospice care, her condition deteriorated until she was completely bedridden. Terry recalls that her mother was very appreciate of the care she received.

“My mother would smile when Jane or Marilyn (Jankowski, social worker) walked into the room,” she said, adding that the family was astonished that the Mission Hospice doctor caring for their mother gave them her cell phone number.

“I’ve never had a doctor give me a cell phone number and tell me to call any time,” Terry said.

Ellen Fletcher died last Nov. 7. More than 200 people attended her memorial service. Over half rode their bikes.