Helen Lagen, Mission Hospice Co-Founder
Gracious, compassionate, and tenacious, Helen Lagen was an expert at bringing people together. Throughout her life, she wove a tapestry that connected her family, her church, and her friends and colleagues. These connections supported her throughout her life. They also helped with the founding of San Mateo County’s first hospice program, one that ultimately provided care for Helen in her final years.
In 1934, when Helen was just 19 and a voracious reader working in a bookstore in San Francisco, she married John Lagen, a young physician. As he began his medical career at UCSF, they started their family in Burlingame with their first two children Nancy and John (youngest son Michael later joined the family).
John was a member of the Army Reserve, and soon the war took him away from home for extended periods – almost six years – as he served in the Medical Corps, including heading up field hospitals throughout Europe – efforts that earned him a Bronze star for meritorious service.
During this time as a single mother, Helen bonded with other mothers who were also flying solo during wartime, socializing, sharing childcare responsibilities, and otherwise supporting each other. The young family was finally reunited in 1946, and Helen and John delighted in spending time with each other, their beloved children, and the gardens about which they were both passionate.
Once all of their children had started school, John encouraged his wife to become more involved in the community – and Helen dove in headfirst. She served as a member and then president of the board of the Women’s Auxiliary to the San Mateo County Medical Society, president of the county Community Council of Social Agencies, and chairman of the Northern California Unit of Recording for the Blind. Deeply spiritual, she was also devoted to the congregation at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Burlingame.
In 1978, Helen joined a group of women who watched over a long-time friend, Bernice Gray (a nurse at Mills Hospital), as she died of cancer. Many of these women were nurses themselves, or wives of doctors, and together they learned first-hand the importance of companionship, advocacy, and pain relief at the end of life. Helen later wrote, “Bernice had taught us so much about the needs of a patient living through the last days of life.”
Hospice care was a relatively new concept in the U.S. at the time. Warren Dale, the chaplain at Mills , introduced Helen to Mac Nash – a cancer patient who had herself been thinking about hospice care – and the two immediately joined in purpose.
With help from many others, the partnership led to the founding of Mission Hospice in 1979.
Looking to the Hospice of Marin as a model, Helen was undeterred by the challenge of creating the first nonprofit hospice in San Mateo County. “How could we honor our friend’s memory better than by putting into practice her loving advice?” she wrote.
For the first three years of the organization, Helen served as the President of the Board, something she considered “a privilege.” Carol Gray, one of the first volunteer nurses and later the organization’s long-time Executive Director, said,
“Helen was the perfect person to lead this organization. She was tenacious and bold, yet reserved and proper. The community respected her tremendously. She was a great model for us all.”
Helen was quick to credit her husband for his medical counsel in the founding of the organization, calling him “an inestimable help.” With his counsel, the group created a Medical Advisory Committee led by the recently-retired Pierre Salmon, M.D. John Lagen himself retired from the UCSF School of Medicine in 1971, a respected researcher, teacher, and clinic director.
Helen remained active with Mission Hospice into her early 90s. She delighted in seeing the organization grow during her lifetime to serve ever more patients and families, creating a ripple effect within the community she so loved. Helen called the founding of Mission Hospice her “most rewarding accomplishment.” Poised and modest, she relished sharing the story of the organization’s history, something she did for years at the group’s volunteer trainings. It was a story that everyone loved to hear from the radiant elder spokeswoman with the twinkly eyes.
Appropriately enough, this same network rallied to Helen’s side in the final months of her life. At 101 years of age, her formerly busy life had contracted significantly, but she always welcomed her Mission Hospice team (including Medical Director Dr. Gary Pasternak, Nurses Susan Freyberg and Heidi Keng, Social Worker Roby Newman, and Volunteer Craig Schroeder) to her home. This group made a special effort to take her outside to her garden, where she could enjoy the sunshine and nature she so loved – efforts that really improved Helen’s quality of life in her final months.
Knowing of Helen’s love of books and poetry, Roby frequently read to her, sharing poems that they both found meaningful. Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” was one of her favorites:
Crossing the Bar
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
As Helen’s very full life came to its end, she was surrounded by the network she had created so many years before. “I had such admiration for her, for what she and others had started,” said Roby. “It was a privilege to know her, and to carry on this tradition of care for our community.”