Eileen Gleber, 1949—2012

08/09/2012

Eileen Gleber, a dedicated West Marin Medical Center physician who made patients feel special with her unwavering professionalism and warm heart, died July 31 after a long struggle with cancer. She was 62.

Born on Christmas Eve in 1949, in Manhattan, to John and Therese McGuire, Dr. Gleber grew up in the Bronx with one brother, Ronald. “As a child she was always wanting to do good. She wanted to be a doctor, and when she finally fulfilled her dream she did it with gusto,” her brother said.  

Dr. Gleber attended Queens College, where she studied chemistry. At 19, while buying textbooks in a campus bookstore, she met a handsome recent graduate and teacher, Richard Gleber, who was helping out behind the counter.

Struck by her beauty, which he said was reminiscent of Bridget Bardot, Mr. Gleber asked her out that evening, and she accepted. The two were married the next year on the Fourth of July at the United Nations Chapel on Manhattan’s First Avenue, beginning a long and somewhat unusual love story.

The Glebers made a home for themselves and their new son, Erich, in a residential neighborhood of Queens, with their extended families living close by. It was a vibrant community, and their apartment was a few blocks away from jazz musician Louis Armstrong’s. Dr. Gleber enjoyed a close relationship with her four aunts, three of whom still lived in the area.

Her compassionate heart extended to the creatures great and small that she encountered around her, from neighbors to abandoned animals. “She was always bringing home stray cats and rabbits that she’d found, to care for,” Mr. Gleber said. One time she even found a parrot. “She was really a sweetie,” he said.

In the mid 1970s, the family of three took a long road trip through many of the country’s national parks, where they camped in spots from the redwoods to the Rockies. At a rest area in Montana, Dr. Gleber found a stray dog—a small, fluffy mutt.

“She talked me into taking him to an animal shelter [in the next town],” Mr. Gleber said. However, by the time they’d reached civilization, the dog had already been given a name, Montana, and found a place in the family’s heart. “I wasn’t quite sure who had adopted whom,” he recalled fondly.

But while Mr. Gleber was happy in the city, his wife longed for more natural environs. In 1977 she rented a house near the ocean on Nantucket, and decided to continue raising her son there. The couple separated, but remained close friends even after their divorce in the early 1980s, with Mr. Gleber making visits and the two keeping in touch by telephone. When Dr. Gleber visited New York, she stayed with her ex-husband.

He recalled one visit to her Rhode Island home when he had arrived to see Dr. Gleber at a distance, walking on a path that led down to the sea. Behind her trotted Montana, and behind him followed Dr. Gleber’s two cats.

“It was so odd to see them all walking Indian-file like that,” he said. “She was like a Pied Piper.”

Dr. Gleber worked as a laboratory technician for the Environmental Protection Agency, and juggled her job and motherhood while finishing the college education she had interrupted to get married. She earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology from the University of New York in 1982.

She long dreamed of becoming a doctor, and was accepted to the Mayo Clinic Medical School in Minnesota in 1998, attending as the Frances Wylie Condit and Charles M. Condit Scholar. Mr. Gleber helped her with the move to the Midwest.

She completed her studies while her son was an undergraduate at Columbia University, and she took time off to attend his graduation.

Dr. Gleber moved to California for her post-graduate training, including internships with the University of Southern California Multi-Site Family Medicine Residency Program, working for Los Angeles County Hospital, University Hospital, St. Luke Hospital and Avalon Municipal Hospital on Catalina Island.

Mr. Gleber recalled visiting her on Catalina, where she was beloved by her patients and the community. She almost could not walk down the street, as so many people would come out of their homes to say hello to her, often bringing her food and other tokens of appreciation, he said.

“She liked being a doctor and helping people,” he said. “She had no interest in status or remuneration.”

Dr. Gleber also demonstrated her dedication through volunteer efforts in the United States and abroad. She served in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic in 1991, and at a family clinic in Katmandu in 1998. She worked with the HIV Education Program at New York’s St. Clare Hospital in 1993, and volunteered with Doctors of the World in 1997.

Dr. Gleber had dreamed of living in West Marin since visiting the area many years ago, when she, and her brother Ronnie, her mother, son and Mr. Gleber went to Abbott’s Lagoon. That desire influenced her decision to take a job at the Petaluma Health Center and Petaluma Valley Hospital, where she worked for several years before joining the West Marin Medical Center in Point Reyes Station in 2007.

Her colleague, Dr. Michael Whitt, described Dr. Gleber as a delivering angel, a gentle blonde who appeared in the place of the sharp-tongued New Yorker he’d expected.

“She was always available, and gave all of herself to her patients,” he said. “She was like a Mother Teresa for the middle class.”

“Eileen made everyone feel like they were her friend, that they were special,” said colleague Janice Kehoe. “You always saw her car parked outside the office. She was always there and she was always working. You could look over when you drove through town, and see her car there, and know that she was doing what she loved.”

Mr. Gleber also recalled her devotion. While the two had always remained close, neither remarried and Mr. Gleber began spending spring and summer months with Dr. Gleber in Inverness, returning to New York in the fall. During those long visits, he said she would call to say she was on her way home for dinner, but was just going to drop in on a few patients’ homes first.

“She’d arrive three or four hours later,” he said. But while he urged her to take time off, Dr. Gleber declined. She was in her element, and maintained the independence and professional commitment that had characterized her for most of her life.

“In a way I had always wanted to remarry her,” Mr. Gleber said. “But she was always somewhere else. She wanted to be a doctor, and I wasn’t going to interfere with that.” The two tied the knot again in 2010, after Mr. Gleber had already helped nurse her through the first phase of her illness. The next May, they attended their son’s wedding in Ireland.

When she was first diagnosed, Dr. Whitt said that Dr. Gleber responded to her “terrible” diagnosis of multiple myeloma in a truly unique and extraordinary way.

“When Dr. Gleber learned that she had this diagnosis, instead of despair she looked at it as an opportunity to experience what her patients’ experienced,” he said. “It was a unique response, typical of her selflessness. Even though her empathy didn’t need any expansion, she looked at that as an opportunity to become one with her patients.”

Dr. Gleber was mobile during her last weeks, which she spent with her husband and son, her cat Meow Meow and Mr. Gleber’s golden retriever, Franklin. She received an outpouring of love from the community in the form of letters and cards, she visited with friends, and she read books. She passed away peacefully with Mr. Gleber and their pets at her side.

“Everybody loved her,” Mr. Gleber said. “When you’re helping families, it spreads out exponentially. She was so uninterested in herself. People described her as an angel.”

A memorial has yet to be announced, because their son, Erich, and his wife are expecting their second child this month. The baby, a girl, will be named Kira Eileen.

In addition to her husband, son and brother, Eileen Gleber is survived by her daughter-in-law, Lisa, and a granddaughter, Aisling Kate (with Kira Eileen on the way). She is also survived by an aunt and uncle, Helen and Nick Baranishyn, and cousins Barbara, Audrey, Nicholas, Robert, Frank, Annette, Christina and Joseph.