Mara Kieval, a long-time nurse representative and former organizer at WSNA, passed away May 19, 2023, with a message.
Three days before her death due to lung cancer at 51, she waved her hand in the air at the hospital and said, “None of this matters. All that matters is love,” said her sister, Shena, 53.
Shena Kieval, a teacher who lives in Barcelona, arrived in Portland May 11 to be with Mara, their mom, Mara’s twin 18-year-old boys, and beloved friends.
Mara was living with a growing mass in her chest that couldn’t be stopped. She was diagnosed with lung cancer April 19. After her first chemo treatment May 13, doctors said there was nothing they could do.
It was hard for her loved ones to believe this was the end.
Last year, Mara was diagnosed with breast cancer and took June through October off to heal. She came back to work cancer-free.
“She felt like she had climbed a mountain,” said Carmen Garrison, a WSNA nurse representative and close friend. She added that Mara worked right up to the day she went in the hospital.
Mara was born June 25, 1971, at the Kaiser Hospital in San Francisco. Her mother, Peg Woodruff, a bookkeeper, was of northern European descent, and her father, David Kieval, a cable car operator, was of Eastern European Jewish descent.
As her friends and family will tell you, Mara was a force.
At age 5, she went with Shena to sell Girl Scout cookies and did all the doorbelling and selling, said her mom. She was famous for making friends wherever she went, said her family.
When her family moved from Petaluma, California to Orange County on the Santa Ana/Tustin border, Mara took off with a family friend knocking on doors and asking, “are there any kids here to play with?”
Her mom found out what happened when they were driving down the street and Mara, a kindergartener, said, “There’s a nice lady at that house.”
Mara had good instincts.
The two families became inseparable. They spent holidays together. The moms started a catering business then opened a French restaurant in Tustin. And the kids spent hours building towns with shoe boxes filled with small people and animals.
“Each of the little people had a character,” said Shena. “My town had a newspaper. We had restaurants, elections for the mayor.”
Path to nursing
Nursing was a natural fit for Mara.
In the second grade, Mara volunteered to work with special needs kids, Her mom said since Mara was little she said she wanted to be a “getting out the baby doctor” or a “broken leg doctor.”
She got her nursing degree in Humboldt, California, where her sister was studying.
“She had been gifted a red Fiero, and she pulled into coastal calm Humboldt area, music blasting,” Shena said. “She whizzed in with her So Cal look rocking a side ponytail. She was such a force. My friends were ‘oh my gosh!’”
Mara enrolled in the College of the Redwoods, a community college before transferring to Humboldt State and graduating with a nursing degree. She worked as a labor and delivery nurse at a hospital near Arcata and another in Oakland.
Mara met her husband, Jesse Clark, when she was president of the Science and Math Club at College of the Redwoods. In 2001, they were married. And in 2004, Mara gave birth to twin boys – Boston and Asher. Her family moved to Oregon when Jesse, an engineer, was transferred. They divorced but lived close and became wonderful co-parents. The boys started college last fall. Boston is attending Oregon State and Asher, University of Oregon.
‘Boots on the ground’
In April 2009, Mara was hired at WSNA after working for SEIU. “She came in with boots on the ground,” said Ed Zercher, a WSNA nurse representative hired shortly before her. He said the two of them would often meet after 11 p.m. and brainstorm on campaigns, such as how to organize nurses at PeaceHealth Southwest.
“Some of our best moments were at 1 a.m.,” he said. “She ran all hours.”
Zercher said Mara felt strongly about nurses working with the security of a union contract.
“We both drank the Kool-Aid and swore we would never work for a nonunion facility,” he said.
Carmen Garrison said she first met Mara when Mara helped her with a local unit meeting at Kadlec.
“I just instantly liked her,” Garrison said. “We were kindred spirits. We were always down for a fight.” She said Mara exuded positive energy and made those around her feel good. After a few years as an organizer, Mara became a nurse representative.
Mara’s health took a turn after the pandemic, her mother said. Mara had long-COVID, then breast cancer, and then lung cancer – the same illness that killed her dad at 62.
Her family said Mara quit smoking in January but had a horrible cough. No one could understand why the mass wasn’t found sooner since she was being scanned for breast cancer.
After getting sick, Mara started a new hobby that speaks volumes about her legacy. She started gathering rocks and painting them with hearts, hope cancer ribbons, little birds, animals, Shena said.
“She would go out on walks and plant them places for people to find. I think of all the people who knew Mara. She was such a loving person. So full of love. She touched all these people’s lives. Even people who didn’t know her, found one of her heart rocks. They have a piece of her and her intention. It’s so beautiful.”