In 1998, Kate’s best friend Tairi was dealing with breast cancer. Tairi’s husband had recently died of ALS. They had young children. Kate says, “I sat around crying, wondering how I could help.”
Kate ran a medical transcription business in Santa Barbara, CA. She began thinking there was “something more meaningful” she was meant to do. Waiting for that something to appear, she signed up for a TV production class.
Soon after, she called Tairi and asked: What do you want your kids to know? She volunteered to film Tairi talking to them. “At first she was excited. But months went by. Facing her mortality became too frightening.”
Even though Tairi died before doing a video, Kate thought others would appreciate the chance. “I knew I had a really good idea. I was terrified I didn’t have what it takes.”
Kate’s inability to help Tairi taught her a lesson. “I learned to start with a conversation that said: This isn’t about giving up. It’s about taking care of business. Knowing it’s done will provide peace of mind—even if you live to 90.”
Kate shared her idea with Gail Rink, who ran the Santa Barbara Hospice. Gail said, “In my years of doing this work, I’m not sure I’ve met anyone else who’d be ready to do something so tough.”
Another friend had acquired 501C3 status for a foundation that didn’t go forward. She offered the charitable designation to Kate, who jumped at it. She decided to focus on seniors and seriously ill patients.
Kate’s new mission began slowly—2 or 3 videos the first couple of years. Demand grew. Now, 19 years later, through her non-profit LifeChronicles, Kate has created over 1,500 videos. She’s worked in 40 states and 287 cities, plus Canada and the UK. Friends and/or supporters often donate frequent flier miles or money for last minute flights. When traveling, Kate may sleep on subjects’ sofas or in their kids’ bedrooms.
Health care organizations including Boston’s Dana Farber and Presbyterian Hospital in Queens, NY, have reached out for training so they can provide LifeChronicles services to families.
The video experience is, Kate says, “more than I expected. At first I thought it was about telling stories. I didn’t realize the therapeutic value for families. Some things need to be said. Families have a chance to resolve issues and tie up loose ends.”
Kate enters each filming without a set of questions and with no preconceived ideas. Each situation is different. Kate’s staff and volunteers do their own post-production work. “Anyone can operate a camera with today’s equipment. Our value is our ability to facilitate families. We enter into highly charged situations and walk families through a process that’s unique to them.”
Kate often works with dying young parents. LifeChronicles videos help ease the fears of young children worried about permanent separation from their parents. She photographs parents and children together, as a family, and one on one. “A child who sees herself on camera with her mother not only remembers her mother. She remembers how felt to be with her mother.”
Last November, just before Thanksgiving, Kate received a call from a young mother of boys 5 and 2. She was referred by Dana Farber where her husband was being treated for pancreatic cancer. Kate recalls, “I asked: Could we wait until Sunday? She started crying. OK, I said. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
Kate arrived at their home on Thanksgiving. The 5 year old was wearing a Batman costume. On camera, Kate asked, “What’s it like to be Batman?”
“It’s hahd.” (Kate mimics his Boston accent.) “It takes special training.”
Kate asked about his father.
“Daddy has a bad tummy ache. I have his special medicine in the bat cave.”
“What does your daddy do?”
“Daddy cleans the oceans. Daddy likes to help people.” (He worked for the EPA.)
His father limped into the next room and lay down under a blanket. Following the filming, the family insisted Kate stay for dinner, from Boston Market. After, as Kate got into the car, the mother grabbed her in a hug. She said, “I hardly know you, but I love you.”
Batman’s daddy died 4 days later.
Another time Kate filmed a very sick 34 year old mother of 4 girls. First, with her husband and children, then with her parents. The dying patient turned to her mother. “Gently but firmly, she said, ‘I need you to be different with my girls than you were with me. I need you to be kinder.’”
On that occasion, Kate was accompanied by a volunteer—a professional psychologist. After, Kate and the psychologist talked about the woman’s request to her mother. The psychologist said, “Whether or not their grandmother is any kinder to them, those girls will know their mom went to bat for them.”
Raven, a 28 year old woman with ALS, was the mother of a daughter, 2. While a doctor from Johns Hopkins ran a second camera, a social worker wiped away the patient’s tears as she labored to speak. She was so ill she needed a ventilator to force air into her lungs; she exhaled on her own. Kate wondered how to turn this sad filming around. She asked, “At this time, what gives you joy?” The mom answered, “My daughter gives me joy,” and she spoke about her love for her.
A week later, Raven’s husband called. 5 days after the filming, Raven died. Her mother was “ecstatic” to learn about the video.
Kate regards her work as about more than leaving a legacy. “It’s about the courage of people facing their own mortality who want their loved ones to have these memories when they’re gone.” She sees her involvement as “walking into holy ground.”
Kate’s creating a website, LifeSpace, to catalogue videos by the human values they represent, such as overcoming adversity. She hopes the website becomes an academic resource. Almost all subjects have agreed to be included. “Most people want their lives to have had meaning and to benefit others after they’re gone.”
Kate, who turns 65 next month, has learned lessons from the families she’s filmed. “Laugh every moment you can. Don’t take anything for granted. Life is fragile and precious. What matters most is the connections between us.”
Kate has 3 children. Husband Russell Carter is an artist who reproduces masterpieces and also creates original paintings. Kate’s passion for her work means the family sometimes goes without vacations or Christmas presents. “And I’ve taken out a loan on our house. But the sacrifices are worth it.”
In the for-profit world, Kate says, a video would cost $3500. LifeChronicles asks subjects to pay whatever part of $3500 they can. Some pay more to support the cause. Others, far less.
At one fundraiser Kate conducted in a mall, a lady came up to her. “You taped my husband five years ago,” the lady said. (Kate recalls, “She had a TV and a couch in the living room, and that was it.”) The lady said she and her children watch that video every year on her late husband’s birthday. She insisted on giving Kate $25.
Having struggled with serious health challenges, Kate has faced her own mortality. “I have no fear of dying,” she says. “I can be with a dying person and not be devastated because I know he or she won’t really be dead. I believe only our body dies; our spirit lives forever.”
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(Thanks, Kate, for sharing your story, and for the brave and selfless work you do. Thanks, Anne Towbes, for introducing us.)