The Honor of Being Present to Help
Kathryn Swingle worked in HIV outpatient care before she moved to Seattle but “coming to Bailey-Boushay House,” the social worker says, “was my first time working closely with death and dying.”
It was 1996, just before life-saving AIDS medication became available. Every resident she worked with was at end of life.
“To do this work is not easy,” Kathryn says, “but it’s not depressing. Just as it’s an honor to be present at a birth, it’s just as much an honor at death. If I can help people transition in a better way, that’s good.”
Kathryn says at Bailey-Boushay, “Every patient is treated with dignity and respect and that’s very important to me.” She adds she has learned never to assume she knows someone’s story. “I’ve seen such courage and strength here.”
She remembers Audrey, a stylish transgendered woman in her mid-60s, who upheld the decorum of her Southern heritage despite severe dementia.
“She was a very proud woman, and she didn’t want us to contact her family,” Kathryn says. But at the end, she gave Kathryn her brother’s phone number, saying: “He knows what to do.” The family gratefully took her body home to Tennessee for burial.
“It amazed me,” Kathryn says. “Audrey had it all figured out.”
Being free to talk about and plan her death made a huge difference to Diane, the first patient at Bailey-Boushay with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
“She had a zest for life,” Kathryn says. When she could no longer enjoy and be a part of life, Diane planned a loving and peaceful ceremony to take herself off the respiration machine that was keeping her alive.
“Her ceremony and death was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever witnessed,” Kathryn says, “And Diane left a legacy at Bailey-Boushay by educating us about the need for ALS care in our community. She led the way for the others we now serve with ALS.”
Kathryn takes great pride in working at Bailey-Boushay.
She is proud to instill those values in her own two children. “I talk to my children a lot about acceptance — and they’re great, very accepting.”
She has seen many changes over the years at Bailey-Boushay, through all the ups and downs of health care funding and the changes in the face of AIDS. She says she is heartened by the community’s steady support.
“They want us to be here because of what we do,” she says. “And I still think we’re the only place in the world that does what we do.”