Memorial Minute – 1/16/2010

February 14, 2010

Below is the text and cover photo of the Memorial Minute written by family friend and journalist Frank Greve. It was read aloud at the Memorial Meeting for Worship held in Mariah’s honor at the Bethesda Friends (Quaker) Meeting on Saturday, January 16, 2010. Over 200 people were in attendance; several stood in the aisles and the hall outside the meeting room. More than a dozen spoke lovingly about their memories of Mariah.


Mariah at Fort Myer Riding Program, 2009

Mariah King Steinwinter Kochavi, an Army veterinarian, was born in Washington on April 1, 1980 to Mary Oren King and Mark Steinwinter. Along with her brother, Clayton King Steinwinter, Mariah grew up in the care of Bethesda Friends Meeting, thrived at Catoctin Quaker Camp, and graduated from Sidwell Friends School. She and Clay, who’s two years younger, were lifelong friends and teammates.

Mariah brought an almost regal presence to Meeting, with her long neck and dancer’s posture. She never spoke and, though close to many in the Meeting, did not join it. Nonetheless, her life’s witness shows Mariah as a practicing Quaker with much to teach us.

Pam Benson, her sixth-grade teacher, described Mariah at the time as “respected by her classmates for her intelligence, her kindness to others, her seriousness of purpose, her wonderful attention to detail and her artistic ability.” She said Mariah was “frank and often disarmingly truthful–and also very strong.” Another teacher recalled Mariah’s intense concentration at age nine as she perfected the lines of beak and claw in her drawing of a bird.

Actually, Mariah showed lots of veterinary tendencies in middle school: She rescued two baby robins who’d fallen to the ground in a storm, fed them minced catfood, and ultimately returned them to their mother. Not long afterward, she rescued from a cat’s mouth a mouse who came to live in her blouse pocket and sleep in her hair.

She also showed disciplined physical audacity, dancing with the Maryland Youth Ballet as a young teen and earning a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. When the strains proved too much for her body, Mariah took a summer off to work with horses and muck out stables at Little Brook Farm, a place of refuge for neglected animals, located in Old Chatham, New York.

Suzanna Strasburg Fitzpatrick, her classmate, oldest friend, and ultimately adopter of Mariah’s beloved dog, Chai, recognized two exquisite traits in Mariah: In a highly competitive school, Susanna recalled, “Mariah never wanted to stand out. She wanted to do her best without ever drawing attention to herself.” The second thing was, “Mariah was relaxed and easy, soothing, caring and nonjudgmental, and it was contagious. She was the happiest person I’ve met in my entire life.”

Mariah entered Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., in 1998. She majored in German studies and art, intending to become a scientific illustrator. As a sophomore, she met her future husband, Ramon Kochavi of Eilat, Israel, in a dorm lounge popular with Pomona’s foreign students and language majors. Over dinner at a Pasadena Denny’s a few months later, Ramon made a ring out of a straw wrapper and proposed. They married in January 2001. By then, Mariah was cramming into her schedule the science courses she’d need for veterinary school.

The switch was hardly a surprise for a couple that was pet-mad. Their 722-square-foot apartment was home, Ramon recalled recently, to a 60-gallon aquarium containing schools of fish; love birds named Sweetie and Rory, who was a biter; two female ferrets, Orit and yafit; two sugar gliders (Australian flying squirrels) named Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Lee; an iguana named Abigail, a bunny named Dirty Paws, and an umbrella cockatoo named Shooki. “It was a zoo,” said Ramon. “And we loved it.”

Mariah’s career-goal shift proved a brilliant decision for her and for the U.S. Army, which paid most of her way through Tufts University’s School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Mass. While there, several faculty noticed that Mariah drew well. “I just doodle a little,” she told Prof. Mary Anna Labato, who, after viewing Mariah’s work, asked her to illustrate a journal article. “Her work was remarkably precise and professional” said Dr. Labato, which is how Mariah came to contribute a drawing as well to the definitive Textbook of Veterinary Internal Medicine. At graduation she looked embarrassed when named among the top ten in her class.

In return for the Army’s support, Capt. Kochavi in 2006 reported to Fort Meade, Md., where she was vet to all of the roughly 150 security, explosive- and bomb-sniffing dogs that work for government agencies in the Greater Washington area.  In addition, Mariah and the 27 military and 11 civilian personnel who reported to her delivered veterinary care to active duty and retired military personnel at bases throughout the region. They included Forts Detrick and Meade, Andrews and Bolling Air Force bases, Carlisle Barracks in Carlisle, Pa., the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Forest Glenn Army Medical Annex in Silver Spring, and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Mariah also served as food inspector for those bases.

On the Veterinary Command’s books, it was work of three officers and initially, at 26, with a Quaker’s uneasiness about command and authority, Mariah worried that she wasn’t up to it. First, she had to win the respect of working-dog handlers. They’re the most demanding clients a veterinarian will ever meet, according to Mariah’s colleague and successor, Capt. Shara Chance. She also had to win over career personnel made cynical by the constant turnover of inexperienced officers.

Mariah needn’t have worried, say those she worked with, including Capt. Chance, then a subordinate. “A lot of people don’t love officers, but a lot of those people loved Mariah,” said Capt. Chance. The secret, she thought, was that “Mariah respected everybody and what they did, and, while she didn’t talk a lot, when she spoke, everyone wanted to listen.” For that, and for her eternal gusto, “Everybody looked up to Mariah and after her,” said Thomas Arvey, the Veterinary Command’s human resources specialist. “She was the sister that everybody wanted to have.”

It helped that Mariah was cheerful about the split lip, dislocated shoulder and black eye that martial arts practices at Fort Meade left her with. It helped, too, that she was buff to the point of awesome, scoring 291 points out of a possible 300 on her Army fitness test. The feat included 81 push-ups and 103 sit-ups performed in two, two-minute sets.

In Mariah’s clinic, it mattered more that she was a superb diagnostician and a confident one, said Cpl. Wayne Butler, a working-dog handler recently retired from the Maryland Transit Authority Police. Coupled with Mariah’s intellectual skills, Cpl. Butler added, was generous and deep caring: “Mariah was adamant that if you had a problem with your dog, you needed to call her. She’d come in on her day off, the weekend, whatever. And when she saw you and your dog, you felt like you were the only ones in the world who mattered.” Said another working-dog handler, Emory Williams: “Mariah went out of her way for people she didn’t even know.”

Mariah was looking forward to deployment in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in the summer of 2008. She saw it as part of the adventure the Army had promised. It was also as a career step toward her long-term goal of becoming head veterinarian at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology on the Walter Reed campus. But first she wanted to hike in the mountains around Machu Picchu in Peru.

A blood clot grew slowly at the back of Mariah’s neck over two mid-June days in which she hiked at the front of a small pack of climbers put together by REI. When headaches, dizziness, blurry vision, slurred speech and failing memory sidelined her, local doctors misdiagnosed the symptoms as salmonella, then spinal meningitis, rather than the stroke that eventually shut down nearly all of Mariah’s neurological functions.

The life reviewed thus far ended there. A life lifted mainly by others’ love began. The Army promptly med-evaced Mariah from Peru by Lear jet to Walter Reed. Doctors, nurses and therapists there and at Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Hospital in Richmond, Va., provided the finest medical care.

Among staff and friends, there was exultation that Mariah could communicate by moving her big right toe. There was new faith in miracles when Mariah rediscovered speech, an event captured on video on her father Mark’s loving chronicle, a blog called Mariah’s Reemergence. Mark and Mary-O moved in by turns as Mariah’s resident care-givers and Clay  came up from North Carolina regularly to spell them. When Mariah asked him to live with her at Walter Reed, Clay gave up his apartment, stored his belongings and looked after her. “We really looked out for each other,” Clay recalled recently. “She showed me it’s possible to find an abundance of courage in the face of overwhelming internal fear.”

Ramon, separated from Mariah before her accident, came to her bedside, too. One nurse brought Mariah her favorite movies to watch. A soldier’s mother made Mariah the floral quilt that she slept under. Many friends brought Mariah chocolates, her only known vice. Dog handlers showed how tough they weren’t. And Quakers who knew military bases mainly from picketing outside their gates discovered the awesome depth of heart in the words “Army family”.

There is as much reason to celebrate the love that people showed when Mariah most needed it, as there is to celebrate her remarkable, loving life. She ended what she described as her endless nightmare on Dec. 24, 2009. Mariah rests in peace. May her spirit live on in those who knew her and loved her.