When it comes to getting things done, it’s often the people behind the scenes, as much as the big names in front, who deserve the credit.
That’s true for two pioneering women who shunned the spotlight and whose recent deaths are a great loss for the Charlotte region’s health community.
Donna Arrington, 69, who helped start a regional HIV/AIDS organization in the early years of that epidemic, died May 13 of multiple myeloma.
Arrington and Dixon not only worked together as professionals in fields that often intersected, they became friends. They shared not only their passion for helping people, but their love of animals, and in the end, companionship during treatments for cancer.
In 1990, Arrington became the first executive director of what was then called the Regional HIV/AIDS Consortium. It came “at a time when people were afraid to even touch a person that had AIDS,” recalled Joe Gentry, Arrington’s longtime administrative assistant.
“She had a great ability to put the right people in touch with the right people,” Gentry said. “You wanted the right people at the table.”
One of them was Dr. Bill Porter, a Charlotte oncologist who served a stint as consortium chairman in those early days.
“What I remember is how easy Donna made it for me to sit in that chair and how dependable she was and how confident she was that the work she was doing was terribly important,” he said.
Today, Porter is a physician for Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region, and he also recalls the beginning of that organization in 1978.
“Sharon was present at the creation,” Porter said.
In the early years, Dixon was the only nurse, visiting up to 12 dying patients and their families in their homes.
Later, in administrative roles, she helped hospice grow and thrive. Today it serves 450 patients, has about that many employees and operates two residential centers for dying patients whose symptoms can’t be managed at home.
“Sharon sort of figured it out – who you needed to talk to, where the money was,” Porter said. “She did all this while she was sick for years with this cancer that finally took her life.”
Dixon’s interest in hospice grew out of childhood experience in Oklahoma. At 17, she took care of her mother who suffered tremendous pain while dying, said Marilyn Morenz, a friend and hospice nurse.
“Sharon never wanted anyone else to experience that kind of suffering.”
In recent months, Arrington and Dixon found comfort in their shared circumstance.
When she felt good enough, Dixon would sit with Arrington through hours of infusion therapy, said Cathy Morelli, Arrington’s partner of 15 years. “Donna in turn would do the same for Sharon....They both did good deeds in their lives and then good deeds for each other as their ends came near.”
When Arrington died first, that was “a really tough loss for Sharon,” Morenz said. “As much as they were able, they were there for each other at the end.”