Claire Eichinger, a nurse and trailblazing administrator who devoted herself to patients and her profession for more than 50 years, died Saturday of lung cancer, her family said. She was 76.
Mrs. Eichinger served at bedsides and in boardrooms as an expert, mentor and leader in the long-term health care community. After advancing her career in Virginia, she moved to Sacramento during the 1980s and went into administration as a quality assurance director, consultant and nursing director at skilled-nursing care centers.
In 1987, she broke into the male ranks of top managers to be Western region nursing director for Beverly Enterprises, a national nursing home operator. She later returned to working in skilled-care homes as an expert consultant, supervisor and nurse. She semi-retired at 65 but continued filling in on-call until last month.
"She was a high-energy person who didn't like to sit still," said her daughter Mariellen Layne. "She was a nurse, and you couldn't separate that from her identity."
Mrs. Eichinger put the needs of patients and their families first. Besides using high-tech diagnostic tools, she relied on seeing, touching and listening to her patients to assess their conditions. Plainspoken and direct, she advocated for quality care in meetings with administrators and other medical professionals.
She began her career "when they were still sharpening and reusing needles," said her daughter Susan Anderson, who is also a nurse. Mrs. Eichinger went on to train thousands of nurses during a career that spanned many advances in health care.
Weeks before her death, one of her last duties was ordering protective footwear for certified nursing assistants who help frail residents shower at Rosewood Post-Acute Rehab in Carmichael.
"She was like a mother hen," Rosewood nursing director Susan Howard said. "You listened to what she had to say, because she was so smart and experienced. She cared about nurses until the end."
Born in 1936 in New York to George and Camille Hueber, Mrs. Eichinger grew up with two brothers in a tenement house. Her father's chronic lung problems, blamed on pollution from a factory, led her to be a nurse.
She earned a nursing diploma at St. John's Episcopal Hospital in New York and started working in emergency rooms in upstate New York. She moved to Virginia in 1960 and worked as a public health nurse, a nursing instructor at University of Virginia in Charlottesville and director of nursing at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg.
At 40, she returned to school to earn a nursing degree at George Mason University in Virginia in 1977.
She married Robert Eichinger, a high school principal, in 1957. They had three children and divorced in 1980. She lived in Citrus Heights for the last 28 years.
In response to a 2000 Bee op-ed article about cultural changes that lured young people to seek lucrative business careers, Mrs. Eichinger wrote about her decision to enter "the helping professions."
"I never expected or wanted to become wealthy at my profession," she said. "I believed that those of us who practiced nursing were gifted and had a responsibility to use our special talents."