My Back Pages: Kerry’s Kids, An Undying Dream

Oakland pediatrician Dr. Karen Kruger said, “Kerry’s death was so sudden and seemingly purposeless and shocking that I think there was a need for people that loved her to carry on her memory in a way that she would look down on from her cloud and be happy about.”

Dr. Kerry Spooner-Dean provides health care to Oakland children in a medical van — her life’s dream before her tragic death.

 

My Back Pages

by Terry Messman

Editor’s Note: In my final issues as editor of Street Spirit, I am recalling some of my most memorable stories. The story of Oakland pediatrician Kerry Spooner-Dean still haunts me. It’s the story of a young pediatrician who overcame great personal pain to fulfill her dream of health care for the poorest children — a dream that refused to die, even when the young doctor was murdered.

Oakland pediatrician Karen Kruger doesn’t look much like your standard-issue medical doctor as she sprawls on the floor of an emergency shelter, laughing and reading out loud to a group of giggling, excitable kids, with her own five-year-old son balanced precariously on her lap, while simultaneously throwing a football to Bobby Hill, an exuberant seven-year-old boy with a strong, but wild arm.

This isn’t your traditional, antiseptic hospital environment either — this is a shelter for scores of homeless people in Berkeley run by BOSS (Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency). And Karen Kruger, M.D., who just came off a 24-hour shift as a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, is not outfitted in a sterile white coat and air of clinical detachment. She’s wearing blue jeans and bearing teddy bears for her patients, and she’s come to a homeless shelter as an unpaid volunteer, with two of her own young children in tow, to provide free “house calls” to children whose only home is a shelter.

The kids she’s seeing aren’t paying customers, or covered by medical plans or health insurance. No, they’re Kerry’s Kids. They’re the children loved and cared for in absentia by Kerry Spooner-Dean, a brilliant young pediatrician whose life was cut short when she was brutally murdered in her Oakland home in May 1998.

Everyone who works at the mobile health clinic that now bears her name is aware that Kerry Spooner-Dean’s life dream was to deliver free medical care to the very doorsteps of homeless shelters and battered women’s refuges so the poorest children would not be shut out of the health-care system.

And every pediatrician, every volunteer for Kerry’s Kids, every van driver, every family member raising funds, knows that Kerry entrusted her kids to them to care for now that she no longer can. They know it is a sacred trust. In carrying out Kerry’s last dream, they are caring for the children she was forced to leave behind.

The Legacy of the Dreamer

The homeless children being immunized and cared for in the East Bay — at Harrison House in Berkeley, and the Salvation Army, Women’s Refuge, and the Henry Robinson Multi-Service Center in Oakland — are Kerry’s legacy to us, the part of her spirit that outlived her short life. She left a lasting impression on the talented doctors and dedicated volunteers who are now keeping alive her vision of free and accessible health care for the poorest children of all.

The brilliant young doctor, only 30 when she was murdered, dreamed of overcoming the lack of health insurance, the institutional obstacles, the language barriers and transportation difficulties that prevented homeless children from accessing health care. She was one of those rare people with the gift of inspiring others to carry on her dream, even beyond the span of her short life.

Karen Kruger, Kerry’s friend and fellow pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Oakland said, “It’s interesting to be so young and to have her work live on, to be so young and yet accomplish the kind of work that could live on. You know, most people spend their lifetime trying to accomplish that.”

During her lifetime, Kerry was already making that dream come true, by anyone’s standards, through her work as a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital, one of the finest pediatric hospitals on the West Coast. Matthew Uretsky, a volunteer coordinator at Kerry’s Kids, notes that many doctors at Children’s Hospital could double their incomes by working elsewhere, but are dedicated to working at a facility that accepts all children at the door, no matter their income levels.

But in the course of her three-year residency, Kerry realized that many children never made it to Children’s Hospital in the first place — homeless kids who languished without medical attention in the shelters of Berkeley and Oakland; kids whose parents had been evicted and had to scramble day and night for shelter and food; kids whose moms had been battered and were living in fear in a women’s refuge; children from refugee families whose parents didn’t speak enough English to navigate the incomprehensible maze of medical insurance forms; kids whose parents were too bone-tired from standing in soup-kitchen lines to take four bus-transfers to keep a doctor’s appointment for an immunization.

Dr. Kerry Spooner-Dean’s central insight was that health care had to be delivered to homeless children, not the other way around. Dr. Karen Kruger, who supervised and taught Kerry during her residency at Children’s Hospital, saw Kerry’s dream take shape over the years.

“In the short time between when she finished her residency and when she was killed, she wanted to go a step further,” Kruger said. That next step was a mobile health van that carried free medical care directly to children in homeless shelters.

The dream came closer to reality when Oakland Head Start donated the van, and closer still when Kerry completed her residency and passed the rigorous final exam in pediatrics in January 1998.

Then, tragically, the dreamer died.

A few months after passing her final medical exam, Kerry was stabbed to death in her Rockridge home on May 5, 1998, by Jerrol Glen Woods, a carpet cleaner hired to clean the rugs in her home.

Woods had seven prior felony convictions and had served 12 years in federal prison for a bank robbery before his release on probation in 1996. He was caught a week after the murder using Kerry’s stolen credit cards, and admitted to the police his guilt in the brutal killing. He entered a guilty plea to murder with special circumstances, and was sentenced to life in prison without parole on August 4, 1998.

‘Ongoing acts of kindness’

Kerry was killed a few weeks before the fifth anniversary of her marriage to architect Daniel Dean. Immediately after his wife’s murder, Daniel said: “We are focused on turning this horrific act of violence into several ongoing acts of kindness.” He was as good as his word.

Kerry’s family and medical friends refused to let her dream die. Karen Kruger said in an interview with Street Spirit: “Kerry had this dream. She had many things started, and then her death was so sudden and seemingly purposeless and shocking that I think there was a need for people that loved her to carry on her memory in a way that she would look down on from her cloud and be happy about. A bunch of people loved her. A bunch of people were in the same field at the place she worked, and she had already made a lot of connections.”

The words “undying devotion” leap to mind in trying to understand Kerry’s dedication to the cause of free, accessible health care for the poorest children — because, as it turned out, even death could not stop her dream. Her friends and family labored to create Kerry’s Kids literally in defiance of her tragic death.

Bob Savio, M.D., worked closely with Kerry during their residency together at Children’s Hospital, and has volunteered with Kerry’s Kids for three years now, providing pediatric care to homeless children at Henry Robinson Multi-Service Center in downtown Oakland. He said Kerry’s dream has helped fill a very serious gap in health care in the East Bay.

“Her dream was to help out inner-city kids in Oakland,” Dr. Savio explained. “She saw a deep need. Before Kerry’s Kids there was no free medical care for kids in Oakland. It blew me away when I came to Oakland from Seattle, where there are great homeless clinics. It blew me away to be in a big urban center with a lot of socioeconomic need that had no resources for free medical care for kids in the city. Kerry saw that too.”

Kerry’s Kids pediatrician Karen Kruger visits with homeless children at Harrison House in Berkeley. Lydia Gans photo

 

A funny, sunny, joyful person

In interviews today, nearly four years after her death, her friends, medical colleagues and family talk about Kerry’s funny, sunny, joyful personality with as much fresh enthusiasm as if they had just had lunch with her. They remember her medical knowledge and brilliance. But it was something else — her love — that they say makes Kerry unforgettable.

“She’s just one of those unbelievably kind, gentle, very warm people,” Dr. Savio said. “It always seems like horrible things happen to the most wonderful people, and that is what happened to her.”

Savio still draws inspiration from Kerry’s life. “Knowing Kerry inspired those around her to do good — not just to make money but to do good.”

Kruger said, “She was extraordinarily bright; she just had tremendous knowledge. But probably even more important than that is her heart. I mean she just loved the kids, loved their parents; she had no judgment of anyone’s choices. Whatever went on in the family, she was just there supporting them and loving them.”

Kruger said that Kerry reminded her most of Susan Sarandon’s portrayal of the unconditional love shown by Catholic nun Helen Prejean in “Dead Man Walking.” Kruger explained, “Kerry was more giggly and humorous, but to have that love is an extraordinary quality, a rare quality. Her brightness was great, but her other qualities were more rare.”

Smiles, like beauty, may be only skin deep in some. Dr. Savio said that Kerry’s warmth and joyfulness came from deeper places, for she had a lasting acquaintance with pain long before her death. “She just wore her smile all the time,” he said. “But she lived in incredible physical pain, multiple back injuries. She was smiling all the time but living with really bad pain.”

Kerry’s family keeps it alive

Kerry’s extended family and in-laws were instrumental in founding Kerry’s Kids, providing the administrative know-how, finding the financial support, and above all, being the sheer driving force needed to jump-start a mobile health clinic and keep it rolling all these years.

Dr. Kruger explained: “They took care of all those practical things completely, for one. But I also think that the spirit — the desire for this to work, their availability — has made this possible. Kerry’s family, who are not medical, had such love for her, and just wanted to make this work, coming to us, working together, and just breaking their necks to make everything happen. I think they kept it alive.”

Kathy Dean, Kerry’s mother-in-law, now helps coordinate the health van’s visits to homeless sites. She described the meaning of Kerry’s Kids to the family her daughter-in-law left behind. “It’s a blessing. If we didn’t have this piece of Kerry with us it would be so tragic, because her vision was to meet the medical needs of indigent children. It’s a wonderful legacy because she was so compassionate and caring and people have just taken up this mantle of her quest and vision.”

The family laid the groundwork for Kerry’s Kids immediately after her death, setting up a memorial fund in her honor that made it all possible. The pediatricians and medical staff at Kerry’s Kids are all volunteers, but money is needed for supplies, medications, insurance and other expenses. Oakland Head Start donates the RV, the vehicle maintenance and gas; and Bennie Smith is behind the wheel, driving the RV to homeless sites all over Oakland and West Berkeley. The women of All Saints Lutheran Church collected scores of teddy bears to donate to Kerry’s Kids, and those are given out along with children’s books to make the health van’s visits more special for the homeless kids.

But Kerry’s Kids operates on a shoestring budget, receiving no governmental grants from Alameda County or the federal government, even though it is providing health care for the children in poverty that are supposed to be cared for by governmental medical assistance and funding.

The beauty of Kerry’s Kids is that it was not launched by a big medical foundation or by seasoned professional fundraisers. Rather, it was launched by relative babes in the woods, by people who had a dream of giving away free health care to homeless children, by family members who were faithful to the last dream of a tragically murdered daughter and wife. All they had when they started out was heart and compassion and commitment, and that is still true today.

 

Kerry’s Kids sends volunteer doctors and nurses in a medical van to homeless programs and shelters to deliver on-site health care to poor and uninsured kids.

 

Directing it from above

But if the program is modest, without governmental support or big celebrity benefits, it may benefit from something still more powerful. Dr. Kruger says flatly, “I think Kerry’s directing it from above, myself, personally speaking.”

Each year, Children’s Hospital awards a resident the Kerry Spooner-Dean Memorial Award that honors a doctor’s commitment to delivering health care to underserved communities. The 2001 award winner was Dana Weintraub, M.D., a chief resident at Children’s and volunteer pediatrician for Kerry’s Kids.

Kerry’s work lives on today in the children she helped while alive, the Children’s Hospital scholarship, and, above all, in Kerry’s Kids. Dr. Kruger said, “I think Kerry’s Kids is a great dream come true. In a lot of ways, I see ripples, like how you throw a pebble in the water and these ripples go out. It’s just how goodness can spread. It just spread beyond to people she never met in her lifetime.”

Friends recall how resilient Kerry had been in life, how she kept bouncing back. Kerry’s Kids might be the ultimate act of bouncing back from sorrow and tragedy.

Kruger said, “I think it’s a combination of her dream, the person she was, all the people nearby that knew her and wanted to make some sense of her life not being longer than it was. No one knows about tomorrow, but it just seems unbelievable. I mean, a lot of us saw her that day (she was killed) and she was fine, you know?

“So it helped to just bring some little bit of peace — that she was somehow still a little bit here, or that she would have at least liked that Kerry’s Kids was happening since she didn’t have enough time to finish it herself.”

Kruger, her friend in life, works to this day in honor of Kerry’s legacy. Asked what Kerry’s reaction would be if she could see the continuation of her life’s work, Dr. Kruger said, “I think she would be pleased and just be so grateful. She’d say, ‘Oh, thank you guys for doing this! I can’t believe you did this!’ ”

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