In the pantheon of human beings possessed of indomitable spirit, make room for Vivian Lee Hobbs — mother of three children, lawyer specializing in pension, health and employee benefit issues, active in bar association work, speaker and advocate for disability rights and a quadriplegic.
On June 17, 1972, a sunny afternoon, Vivian’s life changed. At the age of 17 in a car driven by her fiance, Greg Berzinski, fate in the form of a Thunderbird driver, with numerous moving violations on his record, crashed into their VW Beetle. Their car was spun around and skidded backward 100 feet down the side of the road and collided into a telephone pole. The force of the impact broke Vivian’s third, fourth and fifth vertebrae instantly.
Her doctors gave her a few days. She could not breathe without a respirator and was paralyzed from the neck down. Weights hung from brackets in her scalp to keep her head and neck immobilized. The nightmares of tiny recoveries began with the round-the-clock support of her parents and siblings, who rented a camper in the Baltimore hospital’s parking lot and took shifts.
To describe the hour by hour pain, agony, terror, despair of patient and family is to point to the power of love and sheer grit in the face of physicians saying that she cannot live, then that she will have to have a breathing machine for the rest of her life and never sit up, then the ever declining additional caveats as the cool and precise will power of Vivian’s mind took over.
She had this will as a little girl. But its survival and incredible expansion were signaled, before recovering her voice, after a few weeks in intensive care, when her father reminded her about how they played with the Morse code years earlier.
“When you want to talk to us, blink your eyes to make the letters, and we’ll spell out what you say,” Eddie Hobbs suggested, placing on a tray a chart of the Morse-code letters. Her first eye-blinking question: “Do I have brain damage?” Her mother, Frances, said “No, you don’t.” “Can I still have a baby?”, was Vivian’s next question. She was assured she could.
Vivian Hobbs then took control. She married Greg and finished high school, graduated summa cum laude in biochemistry from the University of Maryland and, in her junior year, gave birth to her first son, Jason. She was enroute to medical school. But no medical school would accept her.
She entered Georgetown Law School, and graduated summa cum laude — one of only three students to do so in a class numbering over 600 students.
The large Washington law firm of Arnold and Porter welcomed her as an associate and later as a partner. She dazzled the older attorneys with her detailed knowledge of pension law — an arcane, difficult area of legal practice. She startled them with her creativity and judgment. She graced them by finding time for pro bono work and fighting bad tax legislation for disabled people that was about to sneak through Congress.
Without a devoted husband who did the physical work at home, while both raised their two sons and daughter, and without her siblings and an assistant helping at critical times, even she would have had difficulty handling what to most people would be the staggering logistics of getting around each day — to school, to the office, to meetings, conferences and lectures in Washington and around the country.
Through good weather, bad weather, scary health gyrations and the sheer fatigue of a motionless body driven by an upbeat, optimistic mind, Vivian Hobbs persisted, grew, produced and contributed to her society and her causes.
Her dynamic presence affected many people around her. One friend made the frame of reference point concisely: “Whenever I get depressed about my life, I think about Vivian, and then I feel like a jerk.”
On June 23rd, Vivian, fighting a respiratory ailment, died in the middle of the night at her home in Silver Spring, Maryland. Only the denial of the very breath of life stopped her remarkable life at age 42.
But her exemplary memory must live on. The Washington Post published a modest but lead obituary. There was nothing on the national evening or local television news that are said to be increasingly looking for human interest stories (that night the chosen CBS story was Princess Di’s sale of 79 of her dresses in New York).
It is probable to expect that the rest of the national media will ignore her while paying overflowing repeated attention to the antics of Hollywood stars and professional athletes.
Yet not all need be lost of what she can yet teach her contemporaries and future victims of accidents and other tragedies. She was part of one of the nation’s most profitable law firms, inhabited by wealthy men and women capable of understanding and giving perpetuity to a legacy for their late partner. A legacy that annually or more regularly would memorialize her with awards, lectureships or better, an endowed civic group that pursues what mattered most for her. The resources required are small compared to the assets of this prominent law firm, but the spirit that can apply them must be focused and full hearted and dedicated to the vision reflected by her brave life.