I Don't Know How She Does It





Marcia McGreevy Lewis

 





Photo courtesy of Connie Niva.
Photo courtesy of Connie Niva.
 
Connie Niva returned to graduate school at mid-life for a Master of Public Policy. Why this consummate professional pursued a different direction in life says everything about her inquisitive mind. In her early years, she had lectured in microbiology to medical students and then taught Palestinian nurses in East Jerusalem for two years. She embraced the opportunity to live in a variety of countries and was also raising four children while globetrotting.

Who is this woman? Tall, slender, smartly dressed and distractingly attractive, Connie radiates intelligence. Her wit is irreverently captivating. She was already a dedicated community activist, so why not certify that interest with a professional degree? Why not? And so she did.
 
At the time she returned to academia, Connie lived in Everett, Washington, where she served on the City Council for years, ultimately serving as chair. That led to a position on the Port of Everett Commissioners where she again took a leadership role as chair. Following that was an appointment by the governor for two six-year terms to the Board of Regents at Washington State University. Of course, she chaired again--twice.

Connie eventually moved to Seattle, WA, and was appointed to the Puget Sound Water Quality Control Board, but that didn’t stop her from becoming president of Housing Hope (a program dedicated to homelessness) and chair of the Seattle Chapter of the Center for Women and Democracy. She traveled extensively for this organization to over a dozen foreign countries including Cuba, Vietnam and Jordan. She held seminars and offered opportunities for interpersonal interactions there to help women advance leadership. Let’s not forget to add that she was also a Washington State Transportation Commissioner (and chair).
 
There were other positions too—League of Women Voters board, advisory committees to the mayors of Seattle and Everett, fundraising committees for a multitude of causes, and advisory panels to other local and state elected officials. Many awards followed: Woman of the Year for Housing Hope, YWCA distinguished service recognition, and the 2003 Senator Henry M. Jackson Award for Civic Service to the Greater Puget Sound Region.
 
Connie’s family was (and is) central to her life. She attended endless children’s sporting and performance events, encouraged their academic, social, and political growth and sent them all to the colleges of their choice. Her grandchildren are now a similarly important part of her life.
 
During all of this Connie remained dedicated to her friends. She was the prime mover in starting a women’s investment group, a book club, bringing political speakers to talk with groups of her friends, and she never missed the opportunity to arrange showers for her friends’ children when they got married. 

There is no doubt that Connie spent her life doing interesting things and changing perspectives, but what’s awe-inspiring is that Connie accomplished her achievements despite battling leukemia for over 35 years. Her infections, infusions and dysfunctional organs didn’t divert her from her resolve to change the course of the lives of those about whom she cared. The ripple effect of the steps she took resonates today. She has donated endowments to educational institutions, built wings on buildings and changed the course of public policy.

Leukemia reared its ugly head when Connie was in mid-life, and although the choice was tough, she decided not to pursue extensive treatment. She had observed how friends of hers with leukemia had suffered through debilitating reactions to drugs and bone marrow transplants. They also had a loss of energy, and she wasn’t having any of that! She settled for minimally invasive treatment protocols like infusions to revive her depleting red blood cells. She sits for hours in a laboratory’s black reclining chair while infusion bags drip way too slowly for her speed. The doctors gave her about nine years to live, and she decided that was going to be enough. During that time she ramped up her community engagement. Why waste any of the precious time left?

Thirty years later Connie has survived the death of her daughter and has celebrated her oldest grandson’s wedding. She walks almost daily with her neighborhood group, reads voraciously, is deeply immersed in her grandchildren’s lives, travels widely and makes flaky-scrumptious blackberry pies.

Connie, now 80, suffers the effects of a severely compromised immune system. Some of the most vexing effects are that her sinuses remain plugged due to a chronic infection, despite several surgeries. She also has an enlarged spleen that sometimes protrudes through her designer clothes. She still looks elegant in them.

Reflective of her underlying neurological problem, her wounds heal painstakingly slowly. Black bruises envelop her body as a result of the slightest impact because her platelet count is so low. Platelets are cells that help the blood clot. Hers doesn’t very well. Her eyes water, and she is scheduled for knee surgery due to a build-up of fluid in one knee. Neuropathy in her feet leads to her inability to lift the front part of her feet.

While out walking one day Connie couldn’t lift her feet, and she fell, suffering a subdural hematoma. That cascaded into further bleeding of her brain. The result of this brain bleed is that she permanently lost her ability to verbalize clearly—this for the woman who addressed many a convocation and articulated incredibly well throughout all her public positions. She now suffers the speech deficit known as apraxia, the inability to speak a word even though her brain recalls it. 
  
Her hospitalization was complicated by the fact that when she pushed the call button for help, a nurse would ask over the speaker how she could help, and Connie could only mumble a response. It took her three months to be able to speak. Now she goes to speech therapy once a week and is learning to form letters like U and Z that her brain doesn’t want to produce. This is the woman who had gone once a week to French class and traveled to France annually. 

The complications from the leukemia are enough to down a normal person, but not Connie. She has had several falls and recently spent months visiting a wound clinic to heal a large red gash in her leg from one of her falls. She attempts to be a contributor to conversations, and there’s no holding her down. There are many words Connie can’t conjure, and she often doesn’t get the pronunciation right, but she will try the word and if it isn’t understood, she will write it down to clarify it. 
 
We sat down to lunch one day, surrounded by lime green salsa and warm tortilla chips, and covered our check-in: my children, her children, my grandchildren, her grandchildren, our friends, our spouses, the books we’re reading, travel, cultural events, and then she pops out with the real stuff. She’s attending a political lecture on a topic about which she is passionate, having an event to support a mayoral candidate and is writing a letter to the newspaper to take on an editorial.

I need to brush up on current events before we get together, and it still isn’t enough. She is much better informed. It is safer to agree with her than to make a case for a dissenting political opinion. That’s not the way it started.

We met shortly after Connie moved to Everett. We had mutual friends who claimed that she needed to get to know me because I was so nice. That was no sale. Nice she didn’t need. She was looking for stimulating, irreverent, edgy. Then we had the opportunity to sit next to each other at a friend’s gathering. We landed on the topic of books, and Connie opined that she didn’t like a certain author. That caught my attention because he was one of my favorites, and I told her why. She whipped her head around and looked at me like I was just dropped onto that brown couch by a drone.

Our book talks morphed into our starting a book group together, and we have probed each other’s minds ever since on topics vast and deep. When we both eventually moved to Seattle, we started another book group. If we ever move again, we’ll repeat the process.
 
Connie is speaking more clearly now. She seldom uses a notepad to spell her words—until she hits a topic that gets her goat: a political candidate who is missing the mark, an issue that could make an impact, an editorial opinion that goes against her grain. Then she’s a ball of frustration. She can’t emit the words she needs, because they’re lollygagging behind her thoughts. She sputters, she stops, she gives up, and then her agitation drills through her frustration. She starts over. Finally, she lets her opinions fly. She’s getting it down. She does better with one-on-one communication, but she pipes up in groups too. 

Connie moves forward with a spirited sense of humor to meet life’s challenges despite her inability to communicate as effectively as she wants. She gives generously to causes she believes in. One is ARCS Foundation where she provides funding for STEM graduate students to pursue their doctorates. She is fiercely family-oriented, has garnered strong friendships and has a loving husband who is her rock. Connie grips life firmly by the hand because she is a rock too. She is a force of nature, and even though she’s my good friend, I don’t know how she does it.




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