Savvy Over 60: Kathleen Garvey

Mar 20, 2019

Kathleen Garvey, 67, has reinvented herself several times. She began her career as a registered nurse, then taught nursing in Houston and at D'Youville College in Buffalo. At the end of the Vietnam War, she used those nursing skills in the U.S. Army Reserves, then on active duty and again in the reserves, eventually obtaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. However, after two decades of military service, it was time to reinvent herself again. Garvey graduated law school and worked on Medicare appeals and the Erie County Medical Malpractice Reform Model. Most recently, she began her own elder law practice, but continues to volunteer with veteran organizations.

How did you get into your first career of nursing?

Well, my grandmother was a nurse, so I decided to be a nurse. My godfather was a surgeon, who really pushed me to further my education - he was a role model and mentor for me - so I got my master's. I started teaching nursing at the University of Texas Health Science Center School of Nursing at Houston - which is quite a mouthful - but then I got homesick and came home to teach at D'Youville, where I was also a graduate.

Although the first nurses were appointed to the Army Nurse Corps in 1901, women nursed soldiers from the beginning of America, in 1776.
Credit Army Nurse Corps Association

It was there, I just got this urge that I wanted to see the world. So I joined the reserves in September 1974. I was a nurse and they had two hospital units: the 365th Evaluation Hospital, which I belonged to, and the 338th General Hospital. I really enjoyed the reserves. I enjoyed being out in the field. I enjoyed the non-traditional things you never think of a nurse doing.

When you think of nurses back in the '70s with their white uniforms and white caps, that's not compatible with crawling through mud. And like any young woman fresh out of college, I had loans and it was extra income. Plus, in the military there's a comaraderie that you don't often find in other places.

1974 was just after President Richard Nixon ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.

I just got this urge that I wanted to see the world. So I joined the reserves in 1974.

Yes. We had a lot of people from Vietnam in our unit. Then in 1981, I figured I would just go on active duty. I went in as a captain, because I had been a captain in the reserves. I went to basic with a lot of 22-year-olds and I was 30. My first duty station was at Fort Knox. Then I went to Germany to take care of a hospital there. The sadness there was, even training is dangerous. Here I am in a field, in a mobile surgical hospital, and I'm treating people from a truck that went over the road. They had two deaths and four casualties and you're like, "How do people die in training?" Any death in the military was bad, but I always took those to heart.

The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. What was Germany like in the '80s?

The Berlin Wall came down in November 1989.
Credit Sipa via AP

I was down in the infantry school in Bavaria, so we were closer to Frankfurt, but I had peers who traveled to Berlin. They had a special train with its windows blocked so they couldn't look out when they traveled into West Berlin. That was the Cold War. We were basically worried about the U.S.S.R. as our primary opponent.

What was it like for you being a woman in a very male-oriented occupation?

There were times when the situation could have turned out worse than it did. I was sexually harassed, yes. I was never physically harassed, but I grew up in a family with four brothers, so I just don't take any gruff. And either God was with me or I just came across as, "Touch me and God help ya." But there was also a protectiveness because I was a woman.

They yanked us and sent two male nurses instead, because there was the possibility of terrorist activity and they didn't want to risk a female being hurt.

They sent me to Honduras for four or five months - and that's why I joined: I liked that adventure. So I was in Honduras and my girlfriend and I were supposed to go on a humanitarian mission out into the villages way up in the mountains. We immunized people and we did simple health care. We took dentists with us. But the day before, they yanked us and sent two male nurses instead, because there was the possibility of terrorist activity and they didn't want to risk a female being hurt. Because this was 1984 and to report the casualty of a female officer in an area where we weren't at war wasn't palatable to the American people or politicans. It was just easier to send the guys.

How did you feel about that? On the one hand, it may have saved your life, but on the other hand, you weren't equal to the male soldiers.

I kept saying, "Why don't you send me? I'm single. If something happens to me, my mother will be terribly upset, but there's no one depending on me." But that was the system - and you learn the system if you want to be successful in it. You have to know what battles to pick. In the Army we'd say, "What are you willing to fall on your sword for?" and I just knew that was a battle I was going to lose and I wouldn't be viewed as a team player, so why pick it?

You have the great class-barrier breakers who go up and reach that glass ceiling and smash through it, and then you have the everyday folks like me. In order to change the system, it's best to change the system from within.

There was another time when I was in a remote post. I was the only female officer and I couldn't go to the bars because my soldiers were there, so I went to school. It was fun. I met people, got a social life. About six months after I left Honduras, a restaurant we used to eat at when we were off-duty got bombed and some American lives were lost.

But look at the times. It was the early '80s. We were just starting to break some of the barriers we had. You know, in World War II nurses had what was called "comparative rank." They had ranks like lieutenant, captain, major, but they were paid what a sergeant was paid. They weren't paid the same as their male counterparts - and at one time, men weren't allowed to be in the Nurse Corps, either. So you figure, you just move forward and hope to be part of change later on.

You have the great class-barrier breakers who go up and reach that glass ceiling and smash through it, and then you have the everyday folks like me. Remember, men aren't the enemy and I think that's how women come across when we get a little strident. In order to change the system, it's best to change the system from within. That's my philosophy. And that's not just in military life, but in everyday life. There's just some things you know you're not going to win, so why battle? - unless you're so passionate about it.

So how did you make the transition into law?

I got out of the Army because my Mom was sick and I had injured myself. At that time, I was 20 percent disabled and it ws my back and my knees that were my chief problems. So I knew down the road, I wasn't going to be able to nurse anymore. The VA paid for my law degree and I wanted to go into public policy. As it happened, my Mom became a paraplegic and my law degree helped me take care of her and allowed me to take a nontraditional job with a government contractor during Medicare appeals. I was only going to stay there a couple of years, but I ended up staying 12 years.

Western New York’s senior population is nearly 25 percent of the population and, over the next 30 years, the over-60 population is expected to increase by 47 percent.
Credit New York State Adult Protective Services

But then one of the best opportunities in my life was a grant with the New York State Unified Court System to look at medical malpractice claims. It was based on a program in the Bronx, of judge-directed negotiated settlements to help move them along. It helped. I got to work with Judge John Curtain. That man is one of the most brilliant men I've ever worked with. He's one of my idols.

So then I became a solo practitioner because at that point, I was 62 years old, my grant had ended and did I want to go work for a 40-year-old partner as an associate in a firm? No. No. I looked at my skill set and figured on elder law because I'd fit right in. I don't like trial work. That was just too daunting for me. I rather work with people.

How do you start your own law practice?

Well, I read a book. I reached out to my friends, talked to a lot of attorneys. I had some money saved. I went to the Small Business Administration, which has classes that help you develop a business and a business plan. Buffalo State, at the time I was opening my practice, had a veterans business program that helped me develop my business plan. At that point, I was 63. I was going to go on Social Security. If I had been younger, I would have gone out and hustled. A lot of people will try to get on the panels for public defenders. I taught continuing ed programs to get my name out there. You volunteer and you work your network.

You mentioned your godfather as a mentor. Did you have others?

Yes. I had mentors all along the way. My second job in the Army, I was a staff nurse on a unit. My head nurse was a wonderful woman and she would show me the ropes, but she also recognized that she could use me to move the team forward. You see that in the military. The commander may be the head, but sometimes the XO (executive officer) is the hammer.

When you're developing leadership skills, never fear giving your subordinates knowledge. Because knowledge is power and sharing your power does not diminish your power.

When you're developing leadership skills, never fear giving your subordinates knowledge. Because knowledge is power and sharing your power does not diminish your power. One time I was gone for two weeks and one of my young lieutenants said, "Things ran so well without you." And I said, "I did my job, didn't I?" I trained you to function without me. None of us are indispensible.

I had a male mentor when I was in Yuma and I was 350 miles away from him. He gave me the rules and his number and said, "Call me anytime." He would foster my ideas that I wanted to go forward with and temper me when I got a little wild. He cringed a lot when I asked for forgiveness instead of permission. A funny story:

The post incinerator died. Up until that time, we were sterilzing and landfilling our medical waste, which was allowed under Arizona law. But we needed for the hospital to give us a new incinerator. Well, I'm 350 miles away and don't have the budget nor the authority to do a new incinerator, but the post said, "You gotta figure out what to do. You can't landfill it anymore. It's dangerous." Something happened. One of them came open and there was a needle found out in the landfill. So I went to my network. I knew the nurse at the Marine Corps Air Base. So I called her up and asked her what she did with her medical waste. She said, "Well, we sterilize it and landfill it." So I asked her if I could bring mine down to her and she said, "Oh yeah." So I'd sterilize it, box it up and tape it up, put it in the backseat of my car and drive it down on my way home from work.

Located in the Arizona desert, Yuma Proving Ground is one of the largest military installations in the United States.
Credit Yuma Proving Ground / Twitter 2018

The boss found out. He was upset. Something about transporting hazardous waste. Details, details. So I went back to my network and found there was an Indian Service hospital that had an incinerator. So I got one of my ambulances and two of my medics hazardous-waste certified, and drove it down to this other hospital once a week. It met the criteria and everyone was happy. Necessity is the mother of invention. It truly is. I really loved my time in the military. I miss it.

But you stay involved with veteran organizations.

I volunteer with Compeer Vet 2 Vet program, where you volunteer to be a veteran's friend. Right now I'm on the board of the Buffalo Naval Park and they have a mission to honor, educate and respect for the veterans. And I play on the Buffalo Sabres Warriors Sled Vet Team, sled hockey. I just love that sport. It's just exhilarating. I get on that ice and I just feel like I'm flying. I've been on the team since it began in 2012.

We've talked about how you've sometimes bent the rules. Are there rules you live by?

I think the first and foremost rule is to know yourself. Know your strengths and - this took me longer to figure out - know your weaknesses. Use your strengths and work on your weaknesses. For example, I know I get authoritarian sometimes. I have to backstep, remember I'm not in the military anymore, when I start telling people, "You should...." Use your fellow women as support and be supportive of other women. Nothing is right. Nothing is wrong. It's what you want. And have faith in yourself.

You know, I'm 67, I've never been married, I don't have any children and some people say to me, "Well don't you miss it?" And I say, "Well, I've had other joys." I've had joy jumping out of an airplane or climbing a mountain in Korea, shooting rifles and eating rattlesnake. I wish I would've been a mother, but it wasn't in the cards. This was my path and they were good choices for me. They may not be good choices for someone else.

Flats or heels?

Before I had two metal hips, heels. I'm 5' 2-1/2", 5'3" if I stretch. I loved my heels, but now I can't wear anything more than 1" to 1-1/2" heel. It throws my body out of shape.

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