Ellen and Mike Turbow: Hospice, special-needs champions

Over the past 55 years, Ellen and Mike Turbow have worked to improve conditions for those making end-of-life decisions and those with disabilities. Photo by Veronica Weber.

Ellen and Mike Turbow are receiving a Lifetimes of Achievement award on May 19. Read all about the 2019 honorees here.

"Why walk through life when you can dance?" Palo Alto doctor Mike Turbow recently asked during an interview with the Weekly.

"That's right, and we do dance," added his wife, Ellen.

Creating a more joyful path in life for all has been key to the Palo Alto couple's work over the past five-plus decades.

In their 55 years of marriage, the Turbows have dedicated much of their time to improving conditions for those making end-of-life decisions and those with disabilities.

Mike, who trained at Stanford Hospital in the early days of the oncology field, became an early pioneer in the local hospice movement and helped establish Mid-Peninsula Hospice — which has since expanded and is now known as Pathways Hospice.

Hospice was a natural fit, he said, because in the 1970s, treatment options for most of his terminally ill patients were few and it was one way he could help them.

Ellen, an estate-planning lawyer who said she "wanted to save the world," veered toward organizations serving people with disabilities after their second son, Matthew, was born with special needs.

For two terms, she served on the board of directors of the Children's Health Council, where Matthew attended school, and later on the board of directors of Abilities United, where she also participated on the capital campaign committee. As a member of the Jewish Family and Children's Services' public-issues committee, Ellen advocated for better coordination of services for families with disabled children, and in coordination with Abilities United, she helped convene a two-county conference on the issue.

Now retired, the two looked back on the busy times in an interview with the Weekly.

"Mike was gone a lot, on call, and it was not so easy. But I didn't realize that until I didn't have all that stress anymore," Ellen said.

"When you're young you have a lot of energy," Mike added.

The Turbows met by chance in 1960 at the Stanford University campus in Germany, where Ellen was studying and Mike dropped in one day after months of travel to do his laundry and pick up his skis.

"He asked me if I had any bleach, and I said 'yes,'" Ellen recalled. "He then said, 'Would you help me with my laundry?' and like an idiot I said 'yes,' and I've been doing his laundry ever since."

The couple married in 1963, and after moving to Palo Alto for Mike's oncology fellowship, Ellen decided to finish her law degree at Santa Clara University. She took one of her final exams in the hospital after giving birth to Matthew, she said.

With two small children, Ellen sought part-time work and found it at the Palo Alto firm Blase, Valentine & Klein.

Continuing as a part-time lawyer, Ellen became a partner and stayed at the firm for more than 20 years.

Mike got involved in establishing what is now Pathways Hospice, for which he volunteered as medical director for nearly 20 years. He testified multiple times before the California Legislature in connection with the End of Life Option Act. He was a founding member and past president of the Association of Northern California Oncologists, and for 25 years, he served on the clinical faculty of Stanford School of Medicine, where he still teaches first- and second-year students.

He also has volunteered with Bay Area Cancer Connections, the Jewish Community Fund and Jewish Family and Children's Services and as a board member of Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City.

In addition to the Children's Health Council and Abilities United, which also serves children with disabilities, Ellen volunteered on the board of directors of the Palo Alto Community Fund, including time as its chair.

Matthew Turbow died in 2012 at age 36. The Turbows' older son, Jason, a writer, lives with his wife, a photographer, and two children in the East Bay.

These days Ellen continues to teach science and nature to children through Environmental Volunteers, where she once chaired the board and helped lead a campaign to restore the former Sea Scout Building in the Palo Alto Baylands.

As dance enthusiasts, the Turbows over the years have been called upon to start off the dancing at weddings and bar mitzvahs, Ellen said.

According to Mike, the key to good dancing is enjoying oneself.

"She doesn't like to be the only couple on the dance floor, but I don't mind," he said. "The reason people think we're good dancers is because we have fun doing it. All it is is walking in rhythm to the music — that's it. You don't have to know all the steps — you just do it. It's not stylized. I'm laughing, and she's laughing."


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Like this comment
Posted by roberta ralston
a resident of Stanford
on May 20, 2019 at 2:43 pm

a very inspiration duo for sure--and the help they provide to people with the stress of illness is wonderful. Proud to have been in the same class At Stanford!

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