Alice Heath 1917-2006

by Gail M. Rink, MSW, executive director of
Hospice of Santa Barbara, Inc.

Alice%20Heath%202005.jpgAs I stood by her bedside in the
intensive care unit, those familiar, curious contradictions came
over me. How can Alice Heath be dying? Death ends a life forever.
Her life was so vital. She seemed just fine to me when I visited
her several weeks ago. What happened? Where did the time go? Why is
she in the ICU? She needs to be in her room at Vista del Monte. I
should’ve gone to see her more frequently. Death is never routine.
Alice Heath taught me that well.

I met Alice in 1974. She was starting Hospice of Santa Barbara,
Inc. I was beginning the Community Resources Information Service.
Alice wanted to know what services existed on the South Coast to
serve the dying and bereaved. Not many, I told her.

I knew about her hospice project. I had read in the local news
the opposition she was encountering from the medical community.
Alice’s original vision for hospice was a place for the dying that
expanded medical care for the terminally ill to include emotional,
social, and spiritual care for both patients and their families.
She sought the endorsement of the S.B. County Medical Society. Her
request was denied. Most doctors opposed the facility idea,
believing there were “enough empty beds already in town.” In
addition, physicians believed a British concept could never work in
the U.S. Undaunted, Alice visited the St. Christopher’s Hospice in
London and returned determined to adapt the hospice concept to a
Santa Barbara model.

I met with Alice for the second time after her return from
London. She had an idea. “We need an intensive education campaign
to tell the principal caregivers ­— doctors, nurses, social
workers, ministers, and families — what hospice is.” A great idea
from an experienced public health educator. Discuss dying in public
forums? Wow! I volunteered to talk about community resources — a
topic I knew; a safe topic.

Alice’s education campaign was bold. She was the tenacious
visionary taking the unpopular and very personal topics of dying,
suffering, caring, and sorrow to the public. She challenged the
definition of pain at life’s end. Pain is physical, emotional,
social, and spiritual. Pain should be treated with more than
medications; it is also relieved by conversation, companionship,
and spiritual support. Alice championed the partnering of trained
lay volunteers with health professionals. Her tenacious plan paid
off. Hospice of Santa Barbara is the second oldest hospice in the
U.S., celebrating 32 years of service to the community.

For me, Alice was the consummate educator. She had intellect,
experience, style, and courage. It was the “how” she taught, as
much as the “what,” that left the lasting legacy for me and all my
colleagues who work to improve the quality of life for the dying
and bereaved. We learned that care for the dying is about
psychological and spiritual help for the dying patient and his/her
family. We learned that all facets of human suffering have to be
healed. Alice Heath championed care of the family as much as she
did care for the dying patient.

Alice was soft-spoken. From time to time, she had to raise her
voice to be heard. But it was that wide mouth of hers, accentuated
at times by a broad, twinkling smile, that was my downfall. Alice,
with silent patience, would wait for me to understand what she
meant, what she wanted, and how things were going to be — always
with that smile patiently glowing back at me. My solace was in
watching her perpetrate the same move on others in committee
meetings, at City Council, with the Board of Supervisors.
Eventually, I realized Alice knew exactly what was needed for the
greater good. Her ideas were wise, compassionate, and pioneering.
After all, she championed the very concept of living comfortably
until you die.

She had a sense of humor, too. It helped to balance her
tenacity. One sunny, summer afternoon, I drove Alice to an AIDS
fundraising event. I picked her up in my ’93 Sunbird convertible,
hoisted her wheelchair in the backseat, and drove to Carpinteria.
It was clearly a top-down day. I’m a fast driver. I love the warm
wind in my face. Alice seemed to enjoy it, too. When I returned her
home, she politely thanked me for the drive and said, “I’m not sure
if that was a quality-of-life adventure, or a near-death
experience.”

Having established Hospice of Santa Barbara, Alice turned to
opening another of society’s closets. The beginning of the AIDS
epidemic was an extraordinary time — thousands of men, women, and
children infected with a lethal disease. Alice envisioned a
residence for the dying. Heath House was to be a home, one where
men and women with AIDS could live in an environment infused with
friendships, families, familiarities, and hope for a better
tomorrow. Again, Alice persevered through the community’s defenses
and fears.

Alice was the mentor. She practiced what she taught. I
participated in the extraordinary unfolding of Heath House, the
first residential facility in Santa Barbara for HIV and AIDS
patients. What happened at Heath House is the story of Alice
putting into practice what she taught and what she believed. Alice
Heath understood what it means to truly care for others.

She educated us about AIDS. She held community meetings. She
wrote letters to the editor. She modeled confidence. She lessened
our contagious fears. And always, that broad, twinkling smile was
patiently glowing back at us. We believed her. And she did it.
Heath House opened in 1991. With a homey atmosphere, meals cooked
in the kitchen, a garden in the yard, a sun porch, and a
stained-glass window in the lower bathroom, it was a place where
men and women with AIDS could truly live until they died; a place
where families shared the care of their dying sons, daughters,
mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, and lovers; a place where our
human connections flourished.

I was blessed to be a part of the life of Heath House. I learned
that love is tangible. I learned that caring heals our human
wounds. I learned that a friendly, sincere presence is enough. I
learned to accept death as a natural part of life. And I learned
that a person of vision and courage can improve the quality of life
for us all.

On the day Alice died, I walked into the ICU. Friends and
colleagues were at her bedside. She seemed agitated. I walked
toward her and stroked her arm. And in the softest tones I could
voice, I said my goodbye. “You face the ultimate mystery now,
Alice. I know you’ll be curious about what’s ahead. Thanks for all
you’ve left for us. I am forever grateful for all you’ve given me.
Rest. Rest. You are all you need to be.”

Alice Heath died peacefully. I trust she knows the difference
she made in my life. Death ends a life, not a legacy.

A memorial service for Alice Heath will be held on June 22 at 10
a.m. at the First Congregational Church, United Church of
Christ.

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