A long list of accomplishments that have helped people who desperately need it is a driving force behind an honorary doctorate for Marlene Marie von Friederichs-Fitzwater. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Marlene Marie von Friederichs-Fitzwater has dedicated her life to helping people who too often are left behind by the health care system.

A professor emerita at Sacramento State, she has worked to reduce disparities based on age, ethnicity and income in cancer diagnosis and treatment. She founded Joshua’s House, devoted to caring for terminally ill homeless men and women. Her work has affected countless people, and likely will continue to do so for generations.

For her contributions to the health of her community, she has been chosen to receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Sacramento State and California State University. She will be recognized during the College of Arts and Letters Commencement ceremonies at Golden 1 Center at 1 p.m. Friday, May 17.

Before retiring from Sac State, von Friederichs-Fitzwater was a faculty member and department chair in the department of Communication Studies. She later was a full-time professor in the UC Davis School of Medicine, where, among other things, she developed support programs for newly diagnosed cancer patients.

In 1989 she founded the nonprofit Health Communication Research Institute (HCRI) to help better understand social issues that contribute to disease and develop strategies to make the health care system more accessible to all. She began to bring together expert researchers and community groups to achieve the organization’s goals.

Among other accomplishments, HCRI partnered with the Sierra Health Foundation to redesign the state’s Medi-Cal application. The nonprofit helped develop a statewide educational campaign in 10 languages about a new managed care program for Medi-Cal beneficiaries. It has collaborated with UC Davis and six tribal medical clinics to increase mammography screening among Native American women.

In recent years ,HCRI has focused on issues affecting homeless people in the Sacramento area. That led to Joshua’s House, named after von Friederichs-Fitzwater’s grandson Joshua Lee, who died on the streets in 2014 at age 34.

Joshua’s House, one of the first hospice facilities of its kind in the nation, is scheduled to open in late fall 2019.

Sac State President Robert S. Nelsen said von Friederichs-Fitzwater “puts her heart into everything she does, but that now is especially evident in her work to open Joshua’s House in honor of her late grandson.

“Creating a safe and loving place for the homeless to spend their final days with dignity and peace is an achievement that will positively impact this region for generations to come,” Nelsen said. – Cynthia Hubert