August 17, 2019

Julia Greenwald: Her Patients Know They’re Not Alone

Julia Greenwald pounded on the door. It was 2 a.m., and she knew the woman inside wasn’t answering because she couldn’t face what was on the other side.

“Your son is going to die tonight. You need to be there,” Greenwald told the woman.

Greenwald found someone to stay with the woman’s other kids and drove her to the hospital. Ten minutes after they arrived, the woman’s 9-year-old son died in his mother’s arms.

Middle of the night visits are not part of Greenwald’s job description at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, where she is a medical social worker in the cystic fibrosis center.

But they are part of her mission, formed in childhood when her sister, Judy, was diagnosed with Familial Dysautonomia, a genetic neurological disorder that at the time had a life expectancy of four to eight years. This month, Judy is throwing herself a 40th birthday bash — she has a college degree, she’s been to Israel, she has a boyfriend.

“My mom felt very alone when my sister was diagnosed, and I wish someone had been there to give them the support and the hope and the education and the sense of shared experience I try to give my families,” Greenwald said. “You need someone to say ‘I’m in this with you, you’re not alone.’”

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease that causes thick mucus to build up in the lungs and pancreas, necessitating breathing treatments several times a day and often feeding tubes.

Life expectancy for cystic fibrosis patients was 20 when Greenwald started working at Long Beach Memorial 21 years ago. Now it’s up to 37, and she has two grandmothers among her patients.

Greenwald, 53, counsels patients and their families from diagnosis, usually in infancy, through adolescence and sometimes into adulthood. She is often the one to take a dying child from a hospital bed to place the child in a parent’s arms.

Greenwald goes beyond just counseling. She sees to everything from complimenting a new hairstyle to dropping off an after-hours prescription, to finding a donor to make Christmas happen.

And she tries to attend every funeral and is often asked to speak.

“By the time the kids die, they may have been in the hospital 40 times,” she said. “I know their secrets; I know their strengths; I know which family members can be there to help and which can’t.”

She stays in touch with the families even after the patient has died, calling on holidays or the child’s birthday, long after others assume the parents have gotten past their child’s death.

She also saves time for her other pursuits.

Greenwald and her husband were active in Adat Chaverim, what she calls “a funky little synagogue” that met in a church in Los Alamitos through the 1990s until it disbanded around five years ago. Greenwald volunteered to run the 27-student Hebrew school for eight years, relying on energetic teachers and parent volunteers to make it substantive and fun.

She also stepped up to help save Habonim Dror’s Camp Gilboa, a scrappy Zionist camp that was in deep financial trouble in 2003. Greenwald chaired the committee that raised the money to keep the camp going.

At camp, the compassion and community building that underlie all her passions are in full focus.

“I think that life is too hard to do on your own,” Greenwald said. “You need to belong somewhere. You need to have groups of people who support you and believe in the same things you believe in. People need each other.”

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