Jessie Gruman, founder of the Center for Advancing Health, died Monday. She had spent more than 20 years there focused on getting people engaged in their health care from the patient perspective. Longtime AHCJ member Trudy Lieberman, who has spent the last couple of years as a fellow at the center, offers a tribute.
Jessie Gruman, who died Monday, was one of the finest human beings I have ever known. Her loss will be keenly felt by all of us in the health and medical communities who knew her, worked with her, sought her guidance, tried to emulate what she stood for – honesty and integrity come to mind – and who were, most of all, her friends.
Jessie had been dealt a bad hand healthwise, having suffered cancer as a young adult that returned several times over the years. In the last year, when she told us she had metastatic lung cancer, we knew time was short. But as Kate Lorig, one of the William Ziff Fellows at Jessie’s Center for Advancing Health, put it, “Jessie lived until she died.”
She wrote her columns on the PreparedPatient site about patient engagement and continually reminded us that the health system must put patients before profits, but patients had to do some heavy lifting too.
Jessie and I often met for lunch at a place on Bleeker Street, where advice flowed as much as the iced tea. We talked about the work of the Center, which she founded two decades ago, and why she took unrestricted money from funders so that the Center, not the funders, would be calling the shots. She helped me out of two career problems for which I will be forever grateful.
After her diagnosis of stomach cancer four years ago, which she told me about at one of our lunches, I asked her what she was going to do. She would continue to develop the PreparedPatient site, she said, and keep writing and speaking about the shortcomings of U.S. healthcare and the encroachment of marketplace values with their potential for compromising patient care. Evidence and the marketplace too often collided, and she was firmly on the side of the evidence. She allowed me to explore those same issues in a regular weekly blog post on her site.
Even though Jessie had a Ph.D in social psychology (with oodles of honorary doctorates to boot), I considered her a journalist, not an old fashioned shoe leather reporter, but a journalistic entrepreneur who knew how to ask the right questions. She was one of us.
She created the Health Behavior News Service, which sends information to journalists about the latest peer-reviewed studies and systematic reviews about behavior and their impact on health and health disparities. It’s fair to say that effort for the first time acquainted many reporters with the concepts of peer reviews and why they were important. And of course, her blog posts were the centerpiece of the Center’s website.
I had lunch with Jessie just three weeks ago – not at our usual spot on Bleeker Street, but at a restaurant closer to her home. I knew it would be our last. She told me her health was failing; she had trouble breathing and often had to take air from a pouch. She said she wouldn’t be around much longer, and she didn’t travel any more. I was her entertainment for the day, she said. We talked about funders and constraints on what gets written and put in the public domain – all those things I’ve observed as a journalist, and she from her own perch. I told her of a project I am considering, and she loved it.
Ever the mentor to me, she tossed out ideas, major themes, sub-themes, the nitty-gritty. Her brilliance even close to death was amazing to me. She picked at her food. I picked at mine. I was not interested in food that day and assumed she had a hard time eating. Soon it was time to go. We hugged, and she walked home and so did I. It was hard not to cry. When I got home, I sent her one last email thanking her for all the support she had given me but most of all for being my friend.