Dr. Doris A. Howell will be honored on May 31 at the spring conference meeting of Southern California Media Professionals. The group will present Howell with their MAGNA award, given for magnificence in leading, encouraging and empowering women. Howell was chosen for her trailblazing efforts in women’s health issues and for launching San Diego Hospice.
Since she graduated from McGill University in Montreal, Howell has devoted her life to improving the lives of others. A pediatric hematologist/oncologist, she is an internationally renowned leader in pediatrics and hospice care. She was a faculty member at Harvard and Duke Schools of Medicine and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Medical College of Pennsylvania. In 1974 Howell joined the faculty at the UCSD Medical School and chaired the Department of Community and Family Medicine.
Howell credits her grandmother for steering her to aim high. Howell’s father died when she was 2. Her mother was forced to go to work, so Howell was raised on Long Island by her grandmother. At age 7, Howell suffered a brain abscess and was not expected to live, but she survived.
“I had such great care by my nurses that I decided that’s what I wanted to be,” said Howell. “My grandmother thought that was a horrible idea. She was Irish and had seen how dreadful life was for nurses who had worked through the war. She wanted me to be a teacher or librarian instead.”
Her mother encouraged her to be a doctor, and Howell liked that idea. She was attending college during WWII and worked as a nurse’s aid. She also had a summer job at a psychiatric hospital. It was there Howell saw things she wanted to change, and that would ultimately initiate her desire to create a hospice facility.
“In medical school and at this hospital, they taught us to distance ourselves from the patient and not become emotionally involved,” she said. “I would always sit on bedsides and talk to people to see how they felt, and I was chastised for doing this.”
Howell immediately embraced hospice’s radical departure from the established way of dealing with the dying and their families. Her philosophy of wanting to offer more insightful care to dying these patients was validated when she met Dame Cicely Saunders who founded St. Christopher’s Hospice in 1967 in East London. The hospital became the pioneer of the modern hospice movement.
Armed with ideas and a non-stop attitude, Howell headed to San Diego. She was busy preparing a speech she would give at UCSD on the plane and barely noticed the woman sitting next to her.
“Finally she began to ask me questions about my work, and then I recognized it was Joan Kroc,” said Howell. “Little did I realize then the important role she would play in my work.”
Howell received a grant for $35,000 and started a hospice care facility in a small home. Over the next few years, and after several meetings with Kroc, they begin to work on creating the renowned facility known today as San Diego Hospice & Palliative Care.
“It’s an extraordinary story,” said Howell. “Finding the site we wanted, beating out developers to get it, and dealing with the city. I have no doubt it was because Joan was there beside me all the way that it happened.”
Howell still remembers how Kroc was involved in the hospice center far beyond her financial contributions. “She would come to the center often and unannounced and sit with patients. She would ask if there was anything they needed that she could help them with. She was truly a caring woman, but wise. Anytime she donated money, she had to know beforehand how we would use it.”
Established as the County’s first hospice program in 1977, San Diego Hospice & Palliative Care is a nationally recognized leader in hospice care, education and research.
Helping more than 1,000 patients a day, the center offers comprehensive bereavement support and education, a specialized children’s program, writing programs, and the nation’s largest physician specialty training program. Founded on the belief: “No one should live in pain; No one should live in fear; No one should die feeling alone; Everyone deserves to be a partner in her/his care, not just a patient; and children deserve to have their grief honored and their lives celebrated,” the facility has changed the way people face living, dying and death - all because a young girl had a vision.
Howell has served on the San Diego Hospice Board of Directors since its inception, and was elected Director Emerita in 1989. She is still active today in breast cancer research and other women’s health issues. The Southern California Media Professionals meeting on May 31 at the Women’s History Museum is open to the public. Howell will speak about her career, her accomplishments and that fateful airplane ride with Joan Kroc. Anyone interested in attending can call Sylvia Mendoza at (760) 942.8058. More information about Dr. Howell is available on her Web site at