In Memoriam: Irene Smith

On the night of Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021, internationally acclaimed massage therapist Irene Smith died in San Francisco, California, after a battle with esophageal cancer. She was seventy-five years old.

A forty-two-year resident of San Francisco, Irene Lenora Smith was born on January 23, 1946, in Seattle, Washington; she was raised in Dallas, Texas, the niece of country and western superstar Hank Williams. After a ten-year apprenticeship with renowned Thanatologist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Irene established her own massage therapy practice. She provided direct care and a sense of connection, intimacy, comfort, and relief to hundreds of people in their homes and hospitals, in hospices and skilled nursing facilities. As Director of the internationally acclaimed non-profit, Service Through Touch (1982–1999), Irene established massage programs for persons with AIDS worldwide.

Irene found her calling early in the 1980s during the rampant AIDS pandemic that ravaged the San Francisco community. At a time when most people, including many healthcare providers, were afraid of even touching someone with AIDS, Irene insisted upon touching and massaging the terminally ill in hospice care and at San Francisco General Hospital’s legendary Ward 5B [A&U, November 2019]. Two of her colleagues on Ward 5B, Alison Moed-Paolercio (Nurse Manager on the Ward) and Ed Wolf (volunteer caregiver) remembered Irene’s compassion and incredible demeanor. “She was a luminous presence who seemed to float rather than walk in a bubble of radiance and peace, quiet and strength,” Ms. Moed-Paolercio told A&U. “She developed a small cadre of others who, like her, came to bring a loving touch to ones the world thought untouchable. Privileged to be with her in her last weeks, we became close. I’d ask how I could help, and she’d say, ‘Just be there.’ As she had been, for so many.”

Mr. Wolf also remembered Irene fondly. “Her ability to touch people, physically and emotionally, was a powerful tool that she used wisely and well. People who are dying, especially those with AIDS, need touch as much as anyone else. Irene was able to provide that to patients on the AIDS Unit at San Francisco General, and also model ways to do it so that many others could do the same. Hers was a great light that will continue to be bright through the healing touch of others.”

In 2001 Irene founded Everflowing, an educational outreach program that teaches mindful touch as an integral component to end-of-life care. Irene taught healthcare professionals, caregivers, family members, and body workers tactile support skills for caring for the ill and dying. Her book, Massage in Hospice Care, An Everflowing Approach, and other educational materials have been utilized by institutions worldwide and continue to be available on her website, www.everflowing.org.

Susan Barber, Community Education Manager at Mission Hospice, worked closely with Irene for many years. “It’s hard to say just a little about Irene Smith,” she said. “I first heard about Irene’s work at SF General ‘s AIDS Unit 5A at a Stephen Levine workshop in 1988. He spoke about a woman who refused to turn away from the suffering of the men in her community, [who] showed up to touch with mercy and awareness those whom others had turned away from in fear and pity. I met Irene ten years later when I called her to offer training to my then-nascent hospice volunteer program. Irene taught in every program I managed for the past twenty-three years. She always said YES whenever I asked her to teach or train.”

Gregg Cassin, the program director for the Shanti Project’s Honoring Our Experience group for long-term HIV/AIDS survivors, also remembered working with Irene. “Irene was such a lovely, special person. I remember being profoundly moved upon hearing that there was a woman who was doing massage for gay men with AIDS. Knowing Irene at such a vulnerable time was so healing. Fear and prejudice were the common reaction to a person with AIDS——yet here was a stranger in the Castro who touched and even held us.”
“I was not born in the 1980s. I had a life before that,” Irene once said, after overcoming alcohol and drug addiction. She reflected, “Don’t ever judge ANYONE. You have no idea what they might be capable of.”

Among the many awards and accolades that Irene received throughout her career, she most prized being the National AIDS Memorial Grove’s first Hall of Fame inductee for AIDS service.

Irene’s friend of more than forty years Thomas Sherwood knew her first as an upstairs neighbor. “One day we shared a cup of morning coffee on her deck,” he told A&U, “and she told me she had spent much of the night on Ward 5B at San Francisco General Hospital offering massage. I realized that while my roommate Chris and I were reading whatever we could find on the terrible disease, AIDS, Irene was offering herself to people, mostly young gay men who were dying. Thanks to her shining example, I soon became a volunteer myself.

“Irene was the first person to bridge the gap between people that only a combination of love and physical touch can offer,” Thomas said. “She offered her healing touch to hundreds of people and inspired thousands and thousands more. In the words of the Nobel Prize-winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold! Service was joy. I have never known anyone else whose life was so completely devoted to serving mankind. Thank you, Irene.”

A private memorial service will be held at the National AIDS Memorial Grove for those who cared so beautifully for Irene in her last two months. Information on an upcoming online memorial service will be found at https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/irenesmithtouch.
—Hank Trout


Hank Trout is a Senior Editor of A&U.

Photos courtesy of Trish Crawley