Friends watch over a friend

By Melissa Moy

A Walnut Creek man who has given his life to helping recovering alcoholics is so cherished by his friends that they haven't left his bedside in the three weeks since he was hospitalized.

Thirty members of Alcoholics Anonymous are taking three hours shifts at the bedside of Earle M., a long-time member of the group who is recovering from a heart attack and cancer.

Group members never reveal their last names, remaining anonymous to feel safer about openly discussing their illnesses.

But anonymity doesn't mean members don't have tight ties, as evidenced by the round-the-clock care for Earle at John Muir Medical Center and, since Tuesday, at a convalescent center.

"He's essentially devoted his life to other alcoholics," said vigil organizer David S., who for the past 18 years has turned to Earle for help staying sober. "There are a whole lot of people who would take a bullet for him. That's how much we love him."

Over the years, Earle has given talks about alcoholism to community groups and encouraged recovering alcoholics. He became sober in 1953 and was close friends with AA co-founder Bill Wilson. In 1985, Earle wrote "Physician Heal Thyself," a book about his experience with alcoholism.

The 91-year-old Walnut Creek resident is a former obstetrician, psychiatrist and UCSF professor. He faithfully attended AA meetings until his recent illness. He was too weak to give an interview.

Earle's friends extend beyond AA, some of whom have also been stopping by to keep him company.

"It's not a vigil. It's a caring circle," said Doris Kinsley, one of several visitors Tuesday. "We really admire him. He's extremely caring. Friends and family mean so much to him."

Earle tenderly cared for his wife during her terminal illness, friends said. He also cared for his brother during his final days.

AA members use a Web site to track volunteer shifts, a schedule they plan to keep as long as he's at the convalescent center.

Earle has a unique way of relating to people, David S. said.

"If you sit down with him, in a matter of moments you feel that you are the only person in the world he cares about. He lets you know immediately that you're safe with him."

Another AA member, who has been sober for three years, agreed. "I'd shudder to think where I'd be right now," said the man, who did not want to be identified. "He's saved so many."

Earle's daughter Jane, who lives in New York, said she appreciates her father's friends.

"They're helping me enormously," said Marsh, who arrives Monday to be with her father. "It makes him feel safe, loved, and it makes him feel like he's home no matter where he is."

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