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The Hardships and Obstacles

Kidney Problems

Besides her family's poverty and having to endure the federally-supported termination policy that resulted in the relocation to California, Wilma Mankiller has had to overcome many more hardships. Throughout much of her life, Mankiller was plagued with kidney problems. The episodes started in 1964, when she was just 19 years old. Mankiller and Hugo Olaya had just gotten married a few months before when she returned home one day feverish, with pains in her back, and unable to keep food down. After being taken to the emergency room, Mankiller was told that the doctors had found the source of her back pains and fever - a kidney infection that could be treated. When she inquired as to the cause of the nausea the doctor informed Mankiller that she was pregnant. This first pregnancy was not easy; Mankiller's symptoms included high blood pressure and edema, or swelling caused by an abnormal fluid buildup, and extremely painful kidney infections that flared up every now and then. By then end of the difficult pregnancy in which Mankiller had to spend much time bedridden and had to endure twenty-seven hours of labor, a daughter, Felicia (a name that means "happiness"), was born. Fortunately, the birth of her second child, Gina, was natural and relatively easy.

When Mankiller's father started to experience high blood pressure and severe kidney problems, he was diagnosed in 1971 with end-stage polycystic kidney disease. In those years, treatments were limited. Kidney transplants were rarely performed and never considered in the case of a person older that fifty-five and dialysis was not nearly as efficient as today. It was only a short time after the family was coming to terms with Charley Mankiller's illness that Mankiller began to experience kidney problems of her own, just like when she was pregnant with Felicia. After undergoing extensive testing, Wilma Mankiller was diagnosed with severe, but not end-term, polycystic kidney disease, genetically passed down from her father. This progressive and incurable disease is "characterized by the appearance of many cysts on the kidneys which may continue to grow and overcome the healthy tissue until the kidneys fail," which is what had happened in the her father's case. The only course of action available for Mankiller at that time was to limit her protein intake, regularly check her kidney functions, and rest as much as possible. Due to the hereditary nature of this illness, Mankiller immediately had her two children tested and ,fortunately, both results were negative. (To prevent passing on the disease in the future, Mankiller went through with a tubal ligation.) Though her father died in February of 1971, Mankiller's fight with polycystic kidney disease was more successful due to a wider range of, and more effective, courses of treatment that were available when her kidney problems became dangerously severe. When a lengthy flare-up occured in 1987, during her first campaign for Principal Chief, Mankiller was stricken with "extensive and irreversible kidney damage" that she lived with until, finally, in 1990, she underwent surgery and had a kidney transplant after finding a perfect donor in her brother Don.

Being an Outsider

Moving to San Francisco exposed the Mankiller family to many new and different types of people. Though, in the long run, this diversity played an important part in all of their lives, during her fragile school-age years, Mankiller was very much afraid of not fitting in. When she arrived in San Francisco, Mankiller remembered that:

I was placed in the fifth grade, and I immediately noticed that everyone in my class considered me different. When the teacher came to my name during roll call each morning, every single person laughed. Mankiller had not been a strange name back in Adair County, Oklahoma, but it was a very odd name in San Francisco. The other kids also teased me about the way I talked and dressed. It was not that I was so much poorer than the others, but I was definitely from another culture.
Mankiller tried to make herself as inconspicuous as possible, even going as far as sit up late every night "reading aloud to her sister to get rid of their accents." Nevertheless, in a short time, with the help of the San Francisco Indian Center, which got her very involved in Native American activism, Mankiller would come to have great pride in her being different and in her history. (Her family, though always close, was going through a bad time that was not related to the relocation to San Francisco.) In 1960, at the age of 20, Mankiller's brother Bob died. The result of a house fire, Bob had sustained severe burns while he was in Washington working to send back some money to the family. The family was in a state of shock and Mankiller remembered that when she was told, she just "screamed as loud as I could, hoping that my screams would drown out those awful words I did not want to hear."

Overcoming Tragedies

A Car Accident and a Friend's Death

If health problems, a brother's death, and a traumatic move were not enough, in the late 1970's and early 1980's, Wilma Mankiller endured a quick succession of tragedies that would start on November 8, 1979. On that day, as she always did, Mankiller awoke early and prepared for the drive to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville where she was taking some courses for her graduate degree in community planning. However, as she would soon find out, that day was anything but normal. In Mankiller's own words:

I was only about three miles from my house, going up a slight grade. On the other side of the hill, a car headed for [the town of] Stilwell pulled out to pass two other cars that were going slowly. There was a blind spot at that point, and the driver of that other car did not see me. I did not see the other car until it was too late. I came up to the top of the hill, and there was that car in my lane bearing down on me. In a split second, I realized we were about to collide. I tried to veer to the right, but it did no good. Our automobiles crashed head-on.
Mankiller remembers nothing about what happened right after the collision, but other witnesses reported that the front of what used to be her car was "pushed back so far that the edge of the hood cut into her neck" and that Mankiller was so mutilated when they pulled her from the car that "they did not know if she was a man or a woman." Mankiller sustained very extensive injuries, including a crushed face, a severely crushed right leg, a broken left leg and ankle, many broken ribs, and numerous cuts and gashes. Horrifically, the other car sustained much more damage and the driver only lived a short time. When Mankiller's family felt it was the right time, Mankiller was told the identity of the other driver. To her great shock and grief, the driver was Mankiller's close friend - Sherry Morris.

On the way to the hospital in the back of an ambulance, Mankiller remembers feeling a "tremendous pull toward what seemed to be an overpowering love." Obviously, Wilma Mankiller did not die on that ride to the hospital; instead, thoughts of her family pulled her back. Upon arriving at the hospital, Mankiller spent six hours in surgery and then was taken into intensive care where she finally woke up a couple of days later. Friends and relatives came to visit and Mankiller kept asking about the other driver and about her friend Sherry, who, to Mankiller's surprise, had not come to see her in the hospital. Finally, weeks later, Mike, Sherry's widower, broke the terrible news to Mankiller. Having to deal with the emotional pain of a friend's death coupled with intense physical pain would lead Mankiller to suffer in silent mourning. However, she never became depressed and, gradually, came to fight for her recovery. Her initial stay in the hospital lasted eight weeks, during which she went through many surgeries to correct her shattered bones. By the end of her lengthy recovery, Mankiller had undergone 17 operations, mostly to reconstruct her right leg, which the doctors first thought would have to be amputated. To save her legs, she had to wear full casts on both legs and was confined to a wheelchair and then crutches. She instated her own form of physical therapy, with the goal of walking a quarter of a mile to the mailbox and back. After falling and stumbling, week by week, Mankiller regained more confidence, balance, and strength. Even Mankiller expressed surprise at her amazing recovery, saying, "To this day, I am not sure how I managed to regain mobility."

Muscle Problems

However, even as Wilma Mankiller was being successfully rehabilitated from her car accident, another set of health problems were making themselves known. In the early 1980's Mankiller began to experience minor muscle problems that gradually worsened so that she could not even stand up. Mankiller had lost control of her muscles - (she had to endure double vision, shortness of breath, loss of weight, and extreme weakness from these muscle problems). Finally, after seeing a telethon for muscular dystrophy, Mankiller recognized the symptoms and went to a doctor to confirm her fears. Wilma Mankiller was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a "form of muscular dystrophy that can lead to paralysis." The strength of Mankiller can surely be seen at this point in her life, if at no other, when after somehow getting through the "trauma of the automobile accident and Sherry's death and then having to face the continuing problems with her legs and regaining use of her limbs," Mankiller was still determined to win and focus on healing. In November of 1980, she checked herself into the hospital to undergo another surgery to remove her thymus gland. After the surgery, she felt a surge of energy and with the help of steroidal drug therapy, many of her symptoms were gone within six weeks of the operation. Remarkably, Mankiller returned to her positon as program development specialist for the Cherokee Nation in January of 1981.

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Revised -- 2002-03-25