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Nancy Brataas defies the odds again

Nancy Brataas is dying. It’s just not happening as fast as her doctors predicted.

“I am really glad they were wrong,” the former state senator said during a recent interview in her Rochester apartment.

One year ago, Brataas was getting ready to leave her home to tour apartments being built for University of Minnesota Rochester students when she suddenly had difficulty breathing. She turned to the person she was with and asked for help.

“I was so bad by the time I got to the front door I said, ‘You’ve got to take me to the Mayo Clinic. I don’t have an appointment, but I’ve got to go there.'”

That’s when Brataas was told she had less than six months left to live. She began receiving services from Seasons Hospice at her home to help her cope with her Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a group of lung diseases that make it difficult to breathe, according to Mayo Clinic.

But the six-month mark came and went. That’s when Brataas dared to tackle a daunting challenge — to organize thousands of family photos, newspaper clippings and mementos that had piled up in boxes over the years.

“When I went on hospice, I certainly didn’t do (the photo sorting) in those six months. I’m not supposed to be here. Then after I passed the six-month thing, I thought maybe I’ll try it,” she said. “And if I don’t finish it, too bad. I do not finish it.”

Hospice services
It’s rare for a patient to receive hospice services for more than six months, said Amy Jo Flaherty, a social worker for Seasons Hospice. In 2012, only 8 percent of Seasons Hospices’ patients had received services for more than 180 days. To qualify for hospice services, patients have to be diagnosed with less than six months to live and meet certain criteria that indicate their condition is deteriorating. Patients are re-evaluated on a frequent basis to make sure they still qualify. Flaherty is quick to remind Brataas that the six-month time frame was only a guideline.

“It’s a guideline, and we know you are someone who breaks through those things,” she said.

Indeed. Brataas has spent her life defying the odds. She became the first woman elected in her own right to the Minnesota Senate in 1975. She went on to serve 17 years in the state Capitol. But her foray into politics began well before that. In 1960, a Post-Bulletin reporter
wrote that Brataas had “no present admitted political ambitions but is a comer. If she stays active long enough, she will probably one day be a national committeewoman or state chairwoman.” Three years after that was written, she became the state party chairwoman.

Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said he considers Brataas his mentor and frequently seeks her political advice. He marvels how during her tenure she managed to have a huge legislative impact despite spending her entire Senate career in the Republican minority.

“She was an absolute workhorse. She was tenacious. She would take ideas and advocate for them with energy nobody could imagine,” Senjem said.

He credits her with paving the way for the establishment of a University of Minnesota campus in Rochester. Despite her frail condition, he said she made it to a Senate reunion earlier this year.

“She was the star of the show. She is just so highly respected,” Senjem said.

Preparing for the end
Brataas said she is grateful she qualifies for hospice care, which has allowed her to live independently. Once every two weeks, she is visited by a registered nurse and a social worker. She also gets help during the week because of balance issues, and a massage therapist stops by regularly. Hospice volunteers help her with her computer and her family archiving project.

“This staff is so highly qualified, so loving, so competent,” she said. “I just wake up in the morning and cannot believe my good fortune.”
Brataas breathes with the aid of an oxygen tank 24 hours a day. She easily gets winded and cannot walk far. Her medical troubles started in 1999 when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Half of her right lung was removed.

While she might be limited physically, it doesn’t mean she’s just sitting at home watching TV. Every morning, Brataas generates her own political email newsletter, sending links of stories to 90 friends. She also is trying to learn how to use a Mac computer for the first time.  An avid gardener, she enjoys tending to the flowers on her deck.

“I’m at peace with the fact I’ve had a nice life, and I accept that fact that it’s time for me to die,” she said. “I’m not fighting that at all. It’s time.”

Written by Heather J. Carlson for