Kate Lorig
Kate Lorig

Q&A: She teaches people with serious diseases how to help themselves

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In 1979 Kate Lorig began researching and developing a program at the Stanford School of Medicine that emphasized self-help skills for people with arthritis, and she hasn’t stopped moving forward since. The program became the prototype for others that similarly help those dealing with health issues such as chronic disease and pain, cancer, HIV and diabetes. Offered in English and Spanish in community settings as well as online, the small-group sessions are led by trained facilitators often dealing with similar challenges. Lorig, 77, earned her nursing degree at Boston University and her master’s and doctorate in public health education at UC Berkeley. She is a Stanford professor emerita, working on colleagues’ research projects, and a partner in the startup Self-Management Resource Center in Palo Alto. Lorig lives in Mountain View.

J: It seems as if the self-management programs have grown organically from the first one you created at Stanford. What is the key to their success?

Kate Lorig: People that attend like it and feel that they benefit, and we have pretty solid scientific evidence that these programs actually help people … and reduce health care costs. The programs can be given where people work and play in the community — from senior centers to park and recreation facilities.

Which programs draw the most people?

Chronic disease, which includes all kinds of conditions. One of the things that we find is that people pretty much seem to do the same sorts of things to manage their conditions on a day-to-day basis.

Do you address the use of opioids?

We will have a new, updated pain self-management program in January. The program is being used as an adjunct to opioid tapering.

What led you into this medical field?

I was born with the Jewish genetic disease Gaucher’s, so my life has always been partly medicalized. There was no treatment when I was a child. There are now four to five different drugs. I am also a cancer survivor; 15 years ago I had lymphoma.

Also, after college, when I volunteered with the Peace Corps in Chile, I saw that the backbone of the national health services was made up of people that had 10 years of education or a high school education and were trained to do very specific tasks, and they did an incredible job. That started my interest in community health and the role of peers in the health care industry.

What was your Jewish upbringing like?

I grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado. My parents, with five other families, began a Reform congregation — after World War II they hired a German Reform rabbi “off the boat” from Palestine. I was in a Sunday school class of four and temple youth group (we combined with Jews from Pueblo and Trinidad). We observed Shabbos at home, but we were not culturally Jewish.

At Boston University, there were so many Jews and things I didn’t understand — like eating lox and bagels, and that gefilte fish was not a kind of fish.

I went into the Peace Corps right after college and was part of a teeny tiny Jewish community, mostly refugees from World War II. I ended up making some very good friends, contacts from that community that have lasted ’til today.

Do you belong to a synagogue?

I am a longtime member of Reconstructionist Keddem Congregation, which holds monthly services and High Holiday services for the community. I wanted a little bit more, so I also belong to Congregation Etz Chayim.

Are you involved in other Jewish activities?

For about eight or nine years I have been a volunteer with the Jewish chaplaincy at Stanford [Hospital]; there are about 20 of us and two chaplains. We visit patients. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we listen. We bring them Shabbat bags, High Holy bags. We’re the Jewish presence.

Also, I should note that our health program is now offered to underserved people in Palestine and Israel. It is called Healing Across the Divides. It’s apolitical and is run by Dr. Norbert Goldfield, who is Jewish.

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Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.