While in her late 20s – some 17 years ago – Paloma Espino witnessed death for the first time.
She was working at Sarah House, an eight-bedroom home not far from Hendry’s Beach in Santa Barbara that provided end-of-life care for the financially disadvantaged and those suffering from HIV/Aids. Espino’s first client was a man named Phil.
“He was the most beautiful soul that I had ever met,” Espino says. “He was sweet and gentle and he was dying.”
Phil had colon cancer. Within a week he was on his death bed. Espino and other Sarah House staff tracked down his sister in Las Vegas, and the Dream Foundation paid to fly her out.
Phil’s favorite song was “Imagine” by the Beatles. As it played, with his long unseen sister kneeling by his side, Phil died.
“I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life,” Espino says. “Death was scary to me. But when I saw Phil transition in such a beautiful and tender way, I realized how beautiful death can be.”
Every year Sarah House provides a home to 70 or so souls who take their final breaths. Espino, now the house manager, and Sarah House’s 20 staff treat each individual with dignity and love, whether they are accepting of their coming death or fighting it and the staff till the end.
“I have learned that the meaning of extraordinary kindness at Sarah House is something that we should all incorporate into our lives, in all our interactions with others,” says the relative of a client who passed there. “I saw the unconditional love and acceptance open the heart of my brother in his last days and touch the hearts and minds of all his friends who witnessed the many acts of love he received. Thank you for giving my brother so much, as he had so little.”
The original mission of Sarah House and its founder Alice Heath was solely focused on care for people dying of HIV-AIDs. As new medications drove mortality rates down, the organization broadened its scope to hospice for people – like Phil – who too often find themselves alone in their final moments.
For Espino, who has been there since day one of that transition, working at Sarah House has been an unending learning experience – a chance to practice love in the most fraught moments.
“At the end of life, you just need a home,” she says. “Some place where people will care for you and love you.” That place is Sarah House.