Helen Miramontes: HIV/AIDS Nurse Pioneer

Written by Professor and Community Health Systems Department Chair Carmen Portillo and School of Medicine Professor Michael Reyes

Photo of Helen Miramontes in black and white

Helen Miramontes, Clinical Professor Emerita, passed away earlier this month. Helen was many things to the School of Nursing, but most of all she was a trusted and genuine human being who advocated for nursing and justice. She was definitely a force to be reckoned with, as they say. The following is a brief synopsis of Helen’s career.

Helen was born in Kansas City, MO. When she was about 7 years old, the family moved to Chicago where her father worked as a journalist. At the age of 11 – 12 years, the family moved again to San Mateo, CA, where they finally settled. While her mother was employed by a trucking company, Helen would go pick up her mother every day after work. One day at the trucking company, she meets Bill Miramontes, from a true Californio family (a historical term used to refer the first Spanish presence; there is a street in Half Moon Bay named Miramontes after Bill’s family who had a land grant in the area), and three months later, the two of them were hitched! Helen’s first born is Becky, now also a critical care nurse, then Debbie, Rachel, Stephen, and David and Jonathan, the twins. When the twins were 10 years old and off and running, Helen was off and running towards her nursing career. Helen’s first major was secondary education, but then she began nursing studies at San Jose City College and earned an AA degree in 1972. Helen would say, “going to school was like an addiction for me.” Six years later she received a BA in psychology; then two years later she enrolled in UCSF’s School of Nursing, where she completed her BS in 1984, and her MS in 1985. Nurse Helen was born and she never looked back! In 1990-92 she enrolled as a doctoral student, but her work in HIV/AIDS took over her life.

She was very proud of her clinical and leadership career, which began in 1972 when she started as a staff nurse in the critical care unit at Kaiser Foundation Hospital in Santa Clara, CA and Valley Medical Center, in San Jose, CA. She worked as a critical care nurse for 20 years and worked her way up the ladder to become a nurse supervisor. Well into the second decade of her clinical work, the AIDS epidemic hit and Helen began taking care of people with HIV/AIDS in the critical care unit. At the same time that she was doing shift work as a nurse, she became heavily involved in the California Nurses Association (CNA), along with colleagues like Pat Underwood, Irene Agnos, and Pamela Minarik. Helen’s children refer to this group as the “CNA Mafia of Nurses.” This group of leaders turned CNA from a nursing society into a professional policy-making organization—the ANA\C. In 1985, this natural born leader was elected President of the CNA. Helen’s dedication to nursing and HIV/AIDS moved to a national level when she organized and chaired a special task force on AIDS for the American Nurses Association. Helen’s leadership and HIV/AIDS activism was recognized and honored with numerous awards, including being inducted into the American Academy of Nursing (1991), receiving the Pearl McIver Public Health Award from the American Nurses Association (1992), the UCSF Chancellor’s Award for Public Service (1998), and the Public Service Award from the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care (1998)—just to name a few.

The 1980s were the height of Helen’s career and public service in HIV/AIDS. The HIV epidemic was full tilt and so was Helen. As Helen became nursing’s “go-to” person about HIV/AIDS, she also was serving on a host of committees and boards. The AIDS Education Training Center (AETC) Advisory Committee was one such organization; she later became the Nurse Coordinator for the project in the region, called the Pacific AIDS Education and Training Center (PAETC). PAETC’s mission was to provide health care professionals with the knowledge and skills necessary to care for people living with HIV in underserved and vulnerable populations, increase the numbers of trained health care professionals working with individuals living with HIV, and respond to the changing face of the epidemic.

As Nursing Coordinator, Helen brought the heart of nursing to the effort to build the HIV workforce within the region. She advocated for the multiple essential roles of nurses in the epidemic, and convened a series of diverse focus groups, that resulted in a bonding of HIV nurses across the Pacific region. She was never shy about her opinions. We remember more than one Advisory Committee meeting where she would say, “Well, if they don’t get with the program, I know people who can cut them off at the knees.” She was never reluctant to mobilize what she called her Nurse Mafia to address cutting issues of the time. Helen’s work was also steeped in common sense. At a faculty development conference where clinical faculty were being trained to become better trainers for frontline HIV care providers, a group from a prestigious Bay Area university was presenting their work on “HIV and Mental Health.” However, the focus of their presentation was measurement of brain ventricles as a sign of HIV dementia. Helen was out of her seat, pacing at the back of the room. Heaven help those poor academics when it came time for questions! Helen’s charisma carried over to the national AETC program and, eventually, to global HIV work. She became a fierce advocate for the role of mothers in the epidemic. Anyone who was close to her had to purchase a silver bell, which was being sold as a fundraising activity for Mothers Organizing Mothers (MOMS). We will remember Helen when it rings to signal the end of HIV/AIDS.

In 1993, Helen was appointed as Associate Clinical Professor in UCSF School of Nursing’s Department of Community Health Systems, and later became the Deputy Director for the International Center for HIV/AIDS Research and Clinical Training in Nursing. She also taught, mentored junior faculty and students, and was involved on campus committees, such as the AIDS Research Institute. As a faculty member she continued her public service work on numerous local, national, and international boards. She also had numerous consulting positions with agencies such as the Board of Trustees for Health Policy and Research Foundation, the Coalition of AIDS Education for the California Medical Association, advising on a national study of physician and nurse attitudes about AIDS for Columbia University, the AIDS Community Support Committee for Johnson & Johnson, the Women’s Health Advisory Council for California’s Department of Health & Welfare, the San Francisco Mayor’s Scientific Committee on AIDS, and the “Until There’s a Cure” committee, with which she remained active until she passed. In 1995 she was appointed to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS’s Research Subcommittee and Executive Subcommittee on International Issues. This was the pinnacle for her! Her mission was to see that the science of AIDS vaccine development continued. She was in her element – and loved the political and advocacy work it required.

Helen remained at UCSF until 2000 when she retired as Full Clinical Professor and relocated to be closer to her children in the Las Vegas area. Her activist work followed her to Las Vegas, and it also is where she cared for her son Jonathan, who succumbed to AIDS in 2006. In early March, Helen picked out an assisted living home for herself. Becky, her daughter, says that she had made friends and had recently commented, “I wish I had done this earlier.” Monday, May 9 would have been Helen’s 85th birthday.

Happy Birthday dear friend.

A Celebration of Helen’s Life is being organized for June, here in San Francisco for all her family and friends. Details will be forthcoming.

To make a donation in Helen’s name, please send a check, made payable to the UCSF Foundation noting “School of Nursing Community Health” in the memo section, to the following address:

Attn: Lynnette Teti
UCSF Foundation
BOX 45339
San Francisco, CA 94145-0339