Kris Locke lost her battle with leukemia in May at the age of 61.

Kris Locke lost her battle with leukemia in May at the age of 61.

Tribe to honor memory of health champion

SEQUIM — It was 35 years ago, but Dr. Tom Locke remembers well the day he met Kris Klumb.

They were both working in rural health care in Hurley, Wis., in 1977, and he was smitten, right off.

“She was an extraordinary beauty,” Tom recalled on a recent Sunday, while seated in Kris’ Sequim garden.

He remembers her lustrous red hair, a mane that came from her German-Irish heritage — a fiery mix, Tom added with a smile.

They dated for a year in Hurley, and then, when Tom finished his two-year commitment with the National Health Service Corps there, took their courtship to a whole other plane.

The pair toured the world: trekked for three months in Nepal, explored India — and found out something wonderful.

“There was no situation we couldn’t get through,” Tom said, “as a team.”

The Lockes — who moved to the North Olympic Peninsula after that year abroad — remained a team till the end. Together they faced Kris’ diagnosis of leukemia in April 2011, her stem-cell transplant in August, her relapse, and finally her decision to discontinue treatment.

Kris died at home in Sequim on May 21 at age 61, leaving behind family, friends and colleagues who marvel still at the fierceness with which she lived life.

As a health policy analyst and planner, Kris strove to assure that people got the care their lives depended on. She worked behind the scenes for Native American tribes across the West, and as federal and state laws changed and changed again, she devoted herself to learning — and explaining — it all.

While her husband Tom Locke served as public health officer for both Jefferson and Clallam counties, Kris worked with tribes in Oregon and Washington including the Lummi, Quinault, Port Gamble S’Klallam and, for the past decade, the Jamestown S’Klallam.

This work was “immensely challenging,” said Tom, who has been involved in tribal health programs since the late 1970s — far longer than his wife. “But Kris was the real star of our family in Indian Country,” he remembered. “Whenever I would have an opportunity to speak to a tribal organization, I would always start by introducing myself as ‘Mr. Kris Locke.’”

She had a way of seeing through to the essence of a problem, Tom added — and she was unstoppable in pursuit of the solution. “Keep your eye on the prize” was a favorite saying.

“Health care was her life. She was as sincere and genuine as you get,” said Ron Allen, the chairman and CEO of the Jamestown tribe who this Saturday will host a celebration in Kris Locke’s honor. The gathering, open to the community, will start at 11 a.m. at the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Center, 1033 Old Blyn Highway, off U.S. Highway 101 about 6 miles east of Sequim.

“She was one of the few who understood Medicare and the impact of health care reform,” said Dr. Jeanette Stehr-Green, a longtime friend and member of the Clallam County Board of Health.

Kris was an expert translator of federal and state programs, Stehr-Green added, who guided tribes through the reimbursement processes, the funding streams and the seemingly endless labyrinth of laws.

Locke was also part of the team behind the Jamestown Family Health Clinic, the comprehensive medical center that opened three years ago in Sequim. As an adviser to Allen, she was forever analyzing articles and reports; her skill, he said, was to interpret the information for tribal leaders.

When they first moved to the Olympic Peninsula in 1979, Tom and Kris Locke hadn’t really planned to stay.

By the early ’90s, after both had worked for various agencies — Kris as a nurse with Head Start and with Family Planning of Clallam County, Tom as medical director for a number of tribes — they were ready to go abroad again. They made plans, in fact, to move to Guatemala to work on a maternal and child health project.

“But we had just fallen in love,” Tom said, “with the communities and the tribes” here. They were avid Olympic backpackers, and Kris, after living in frosty Wisconsin, had grown to love gardening in temperate Sequim.

“We really loved our life here,” said Tom.

Kris received her diagnosis a year ago April: acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL. The disease has one speed, Tom said. High.

Kris was advised to search for a stem-cell donor immediately, and in this she was fortunate: One of her brothers was a perfect match.

For much of 2011, the Lockes lived in Seattle as Kris underwent in- and outpatient treatments at the Cancer Care Alliance and the University of Washington Medical Center.

“A stem-cell transplant is an overwhelming experience,” Tom said. “You have to live next door to a blood bank.”

Kris went through four hospitalizations; her transplant went well and the Lockes returned home to Sequim in the fall.

“We were very hopeful. Kris was just doing great,” Tom recalled. The family celebrated her 61st birthday in November, and then Christmas at home.

But in February, during a routine office visit, they learned that Kris had gone from showing no signs of the disease to leukemia in 60 percent of her white blood cells.

After all the Lockes had gone through, the relapse was even more devastating than the initial diagnosis.

Being a physician in this ordeal is “a blessing and a curse,” Tom said.

“You are an aggressive advocate and caregiver. And you know too much,” including that the odds of recovery, now that Kris had relapsed, were against her.

Tom’s first reaction was denial. He remembers waking in the middle of the night thinking: This has got to be a bad dream. He even pulled out Kris’ lab test again, in hopes that somehow it wouldn’t show the leukemia’s return.

Yet his wife responded with characteristic courage — and acceptance. Her feeling was that she’d given it her best shot; “she was very much a realist,” said Tom.

The last time she was admitted to the hospital, Kris chose not to prolong her treatment.

“She did it in a really positive way. She felt she had a wonderful life,” Tom said. “She had no fear of death. She had always said that, and it was really true.”

Tom spent a June Sunday afternoon with friends, who had come over to spruce up Kris’ garden for summer. Stehr-Green was there, with others who gave the afternoon to weeding, pruning, clearing paths, and then sharing a supper of salad and rhubarb cake made by Stehr-Green’s husband, Paul.

Tom, for his part, is taking life one day at a time.

“I consider myself fortunate person. I have work that I love. I have a big extended family,” including Kris’ son Arrow and many friends. He added that spending time with other stricken families, at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and at the hospital, has renewed his desire to work for health care reform. Too many people, Tom said, still do not have access to the services they need.

First, though, Tom is preparing for Saturday’s celebration of Kris’ life. It was something she asked Allen to plan, during a conversation they had shortly before she died.

During that talk, “all she cared about was other people,” Allen said. What she wanted, he said, was for Tom and their family and friends to get together, share a meal, and tell a few stories — especially the funny ones.

“I will lead off, and talk about what she meant to me and the tribe,” said Allen, adding that he will then open the microphone.

“We just were very blessed,” he said, “to have her in our lives.”

__________

Features Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5062, or at diane.urbani@peninsuladailynews.com.

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