After transitioning from hospice care in 1996 with the advent of lifesaving antiretroviral drugs, the facility then served as headquarters of AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Public Health Division; the facility officially shut its doors with a sunset memorial ceremony on Jan. 26th
LOS ANGELES (January 30, 2013) – In 1988, learning one was HIV-positive meant only one thing: a terrifying clock had begun counting down to an unavoidable death from AIDS. There was only one, partially effective treatment for the virus then—AZT—and fear, coupled with devastation, overshadowed any glimmer of hope that one’s partner might make it through his battle, that one’s friend wouldn’t be lost, that one’s family member could have a different final outcome.
Then a new organization was founded on the idea that, if people were going to pass away as a result of AIDS, they should at least have the opportunity for their lives to end as painlessly and with as much dignity as humanly possible. That simple idea led to the creation of the Los Angeles AIDS Hospice Committee, co-founded in 1987 by activists Chris Brownlie and Michael Weinstein as well as Sharon Raphael, PhD, and Mina Meyer, MA, two longtime, nationally-recognized and well-respected Southern California-based community, women’s and gay & lesbian advocates. These and other advocates were among the earliest champions of the AIDS hospice movement as co-founders of the AIDS Hospice Committee, the catalyst organization which gave rise to the AIDS Hospice Foundation and, ultimately, to today’s AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
In those early years, following an emotional plea for hospice care to the Los Angeles County Commission on AIDS and a protest and picketing of then-Supervisor Mike Antonovich’s home, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors eventually committed $2 million to AIDS care.
As members of the inaugural AIDS Hospice Committee, Brownlie, Weinstein, Myer, Raphael, Paul Coleman and others were involved with the planning and negotiations for the opening of Chris Brownlie Hospice on the grounds of the Barlow Respiratory Hospital. The group began converting a facility in Elysian Park that had been Barlow’s old nursing quarters into Chris Brownlie Hospice—the County’s first AIDS hospice—which was named in Brownlie’s honor when it first opened December 26, 1988. Meyer, who also served as Treasurer of the AIDS Hospice Committee, was honored in 1987 by the Los Angeles AIDS Hospice Committee with its ‘Heart of Gold Award’ for her early work in the effort to formulate AIDS hospice care in Los Angeles.
The 25-bed hospice, the first of three operated by AHF, provided 24-hour medical and palliative care to people living through the final stages of AIDS. Brownlie passed away at the age of 39, on November 26, 1989, less than a year after the hospice named in his honor first opened, survived by his father, sister, brothers, his longtime partner, Phill Wilson and countless friends and fellow AIDS activists.
“Of course, I’ve always hoped that I would not die, that I would live forever,” Brownlie told the Los Angeles Times at the opening of the hospice in 1988. “But on another level, I actually get a sense of well-being about this experience. Sometimes it becomes very profound in a religious sense at the edges of my consciousness. And this is what the hospice program is about – it will help others accept the fact that death, too, is part of the life experience.”
“In small part, today may seem a bittersweet occasion as we turn a page and close this chapter in the history of AIDS and of AHF,” said Michael Weinstein, President of AIDS Healthcare Foundation. “However, Chris would no doubt be amazed to see what has grown from our initial grassroots efforts to provide compassionate care in those early days of the pandemic, to the AHF of today—providing lifesaving care and services to nearly 200,000 individuals in 28 countries worldwide. In his poem ‘AIDS,’ Chris himself really said it best: ‘It is surviving and believing in the future.’ Today we honor that sentiment as we move forward in AHF’s mission both here in Los Angeles and everywhere around the world where we have a presence.”
In addition to Brownlie, over 1,000 people had been given dignified, specialized, compassionate final care at the Chris Brownlie Hospice by the time it ended hospice operations in September 1996. The world of AIDS had changed by then: new antiretroviral treatment meant an HIV-positive diagnosis signified a change in one’s life, not the end of it.
And as a result, AHF adapted with the changing needs of those living with the virus, as well: the nonprofit went from helping people with AIDS die well to helping them live well with the condition. The organization’s name changed from AIDS Hospice Foundation to AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which today is the largest AIDS service organization in the world, helping nearly 200,000 people in 28 countries around the world access treatment for HIV/AIDS as well as preventative measures and political advocacy.
The building that housed the Brownlie Hospice went through its own rebirths, housing various departments of AHF, including its most recent incarnation as the headquarters for AHF’s Public Health Division. But on Saturday, January 26, the organization will be officially turning the property back over to the City of Los Angeles with a sunset memorial ceremony celebrating the years of hope and help the hospice gave to thousands of brave people battling AIDS.
The sunset ceremony was held from 4 pm – 6 pm at 1300 Scott Avenue in Los Angeles, and featured a twilight performance of “Pie Jesu” by two members of L.A.’s Gay Men’s Chorus – a group that has lost hundreds of its members to AIDS, including 149 men who lived and died at the Chris Brownlie Hospice — as current and former AHF staff members released seven burgundy balloons to signify the seven years of service the hospice provided. Speakers at the event included Michael Weinstein, President, AIDS Healthcare Foundation & co founder of Chris Brownlie Hospice; Hon. Bill Rosendahl, Los Angeles City Councilmember, District 11; Hon. Richard Polanco, former California State Senator instrumental in creation of AHF; Hon. John Duran, Councilmember, City of West Hollywood, and a member of the Gay Men’s Chorus, speaking on behalf of the many members of the choir who passed away at Chris Brownlie Hospice; Hywel Sims, former Director of Chris Brownlie Hospice; Michael Nelson, former Assistant Director of Chris Brownlie Hospice; Terri Ford, Chief of Global Advocacy for AHF and former Food Service Director at Chris Brownlie; Whitney Engeran-Cordova, Senior Director of AHF’s Public Health Division; and Reverend J. Robert Prete, whose partner passed away at Brownlie, and who will serve as Emcee for the event.