Helen Miramontes’ nursing career began in 1972 in Kaiser Santa Clara’s critical care unit. It later continued at Valley Medical Center where she worked for 20 years, ultimately as a nurse supervisor.
Her involvement with AIDS policy and services came about because of her family. In the 1980’s, one of her sons was openly gay and suffering from alcoholism. “In the beginning, she sort of got into it because she needed to know what this is about because (my parents) thought I was going to get sick,” said her son David Miramontes during an interview with Ken Yeager in October 2018.
David’s twin brother, Jonathan, was also gay but still in the closet at that time. He would ultimately die of AIDS in 2006.
The epidemic was not the first time that Helen had gotten involved in a cause. “My mother was involved in the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War movement, and the migrant farm worker movement in the 60s. I remember being next to her with my siblings, all six of us, listening to Cesar Chavez,” said David Miramontes. “She always said that social work helped her really get started doing AIDS work.”
She developed one of the first train-the-trainer programs that addressed the need for cultural competency in HIV/AIDS care. The course provided nurses straight-forward information, focusing on the role of stigma, ignorance, misconceptions, and intolerance in undermining treatment and research toward a cure. She explained the course’s direct approach by saying, “You don’t change attitudes with slides and didactic lectures.”
As she became nursing’s “go-to” person about HIV/AIDS, she also served on a host of committees and boards, including Santa Clara County’s AIDS Task Force. As chair of the Task Force I got to know her and saw firsthand the dedication and passion she brought to her work.
In 1993, Miramontes became an Associate Clinical Professor in UCSF School of Nursing’s Department of Community Health Systems. She taught and mentored faculty and students and was involved in the UCSF AIDS Research Institute. She continued her public service on numerous local, national, and international boards. In 1995, she was appointed to President Clinton’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, serving on both the research subcommittee and executive subcommittee on international issues.
Miramontes retired from UCSF in 2000 as Full Clinical Professor and relocated to be closer to her children in the Las Vegas area. Her activism continued there. During this time, she also cared for her son Jonathan. She died in May 2016, six days shy of her 85th birthday. Her name, and Jonathan’s, have been inscribed on the Circle of Names at the AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.