No one should have to face hospitalization, surgery, or illness alone. Ruth Linden founded Tree of Life Health Advocates in 2014 to help her clients navigate through the increasingly complex healthcare system. She is at her clients’ side through their most difficult moments—asking questions about treatment options and risks, keeping them safe in the hospital, preserving their dignity, and fighting for their rights.
Health advocacy is a newly professionalized field. Ruth is the only “out,” independent health advocate serving the Bay Area and possibly the nation. We sat down with Ruth recently to learn about what she does.
San Francisco Bay Times: How did you come to this work?
Ruth Linden: Actually, the work came to me. For over 25 years I’ve served as a health advocate for my loved ones—family and friends.
San Francisco Bay Times: You have an impressive background as a former professor and a Ph.D. medical sociologist.
You’ve held a UCSF fellowship in bioethics and a Mellon Fellowship in the History of Medicine at Stanford. You’ve studied alternatives to conventional long-term care at UC Berkeley. Have we left anything out?
Ruth Linden: San Francisco Bay Times readers might be interested in knowing that I taught UCSF medi- cal students how to interview patients and discuss end-of-life issues. I also developed courses on HIV/AIDS and breast cancer. I was also the director of a major study of diversity in health professions education and Director of Curricular Reform at Stanford School of Medicine.
San Francisco Bay Times: But being an independent health advocate requires more, right?
Ruth Linden: Absolutely. My understanding of evidence-based medicine, health policy, healthcare law, and bioethics is crucial. Also, having the ability to communicate effectively, negotiate, problem-solve, and strategize is fundamental to my work.
San Francisco Bay Times: You say on your website that healthcare justice is your passion. What does that mean?
Ruth Linden: The healthcare system is a fundamentally uneven playing field that disempowers patients, who are often victimized by policies, doctors, and institutions—including health insurers, big pharma, and hospitals. My job is to help level the playing field.
San Francisco Bay Times: Tell me about a typical client. I know this is hard because you must preserve confidentiality.
Ruth Linden: John was an artist, whom I met at our booth at this year’s Pride. He had liver cancer and had run out of treatment options. John needed a health advocate but he also needed social services. Living in an SRO on SSI, John couldn’t afford to hire an advocate, so I worked with him pro bono.
Because he was HIV negative, John didn’t qualify for the many services available to the HIV community. I found an organization willing to pro- vide him with a buddy. Then I arranged for a second opinion from a panel of oncology experts and accompanied him to medical appointments.
Late one Sunday night, John called from the ER. I rushed to his side. I eased his transfer to the next hospital and monitored his care in the ICU to ensure that his treatment conformed to his wishes. I was with him every evening. Sadly, John died the morning he was to be transferred to hospice. I helped his out-of-state family obtain his belongings from the hospital and his art from his Tenderloin SRO hotel.
San Francisco Bay Times: Tell us something about you that might surprise our readers.
Ruth Linden: I co-founded four Bay Area coalitions and nonprofits; and wrote a prize-winning book, Making Stories, Making Selves, the first, feminist study of women in the Holocaust.
San Francisco Bay Times: You’ve also been involved in the LGBT community.
Ruth Linden: My partner, Alexandra, and I served on the steering committee of Breast Cancer Emergency Fund’s “This Old Bag” fundraiser. We’re founding donors to the San Francisco LGBT Community Center. This year, my company was a corporate sponsor of a Shanti event.
San Francisco Bay Times: What do you like to do in your free time?
Ruth Linden: Free time? [laughs] On my rare days off, I spend time at home with Alexandra and our Siamese, Mazel Tov. When we go out I enjoy attending theatre—musicals like Rent and Sweeney Todd. I especially love one-woman shows. We’ve seen Elaine Stritch, Bea Arthur, Rita Moreno, and Kathleen Turner. We already have tickets to see Idina Menzel in If/Then.
San Francisco Bay Times: I’ve heard that you and Alexandra had a cute meet and a cute wedding.
Ruth Linden: Well, I don’t know about cute, but we did meet through a personal ad in the Northern California Jewish newspaper and immediately discovered that we grew up knowing many of the same people in West Los Angeles. It’s amazing that we didn’t meet at the age of 15. In 2004, four years after we did meet, we were married at the rehab center where Alexandra’s mother was recovering from a stroke. Shelley Winters, the actress, was on the same f loor and we invited her to our ceremony. We celebrated in her room afterward. She really enjoyed our cake!
To learn more about Ruth Linden and her work, please visit www.treeoflifehealthad- vocates.com