Woman loses long fight with cancer
Sometimes tragedy breeds surprising inner-strength.
Throughout her four-year battle with cancer, Nivia Bryant’s courage and faith allowed her to cope with an inevitable fate.
Nivia died on Jan. 13, and now her husband, Dave, is drawing on his own faith to guide him through a life without her.
This is their story.
Nivia Batlle, an ESL/Spanish teacher at Whittell High School, married Dave Bryant, an irrigation contractor, on July 15, 1995. The service was performed by Dan Wilvers, their pastor at Sierra Community Church.
Life was wonderful for the couple, who enjoyed cycling, hiking and traveling.
It was not until December 1996 that trouble began for Nivia.
“It was two glasses of wine that started the whole thing,” Dave Bryant said. “Two glasses of wine at a Christmas party.”
Nivia got a terrible side ache after drinking the wine and the pain continued on through the next morning.
On Christmas Eve, Nivia was told she had a tumor on her liver.
“We went to see a doctor in Reno and they sent her to a specialist at (the University of California at San Francisco),” Bryant said. “They have one of the best liver teams in the nation. Certainly the best in the West, hands down.”
The team at UCSF initially thought the tumor was benign.
“When they got in there, it was not what they expected,” Bryant said. “She was in surgery for (more than) five hours.”
Dr. Nancy Ascher, chief of surgery at UCSF, removed the tumor, but found multiple lesions on the other side of the liver.
“(Dr. Ascher) said, ‘This surgery scared me,’ and that’s a direct quote,” Bryant said. “Nivia had a very rare case of liver cancer. There were only 18 other cases documented worldwide.”
A liver transplant seemed to be the only answer, but Nivia was hesitant.
“She knew a little more about transplants than the rest of the family,” Bryant said. “But after much prayer and a lot of tears shed, a lot of depression, she decided to be put on the transplant list.”
Nivia was checked for other cancer and came up clean. She was cleared to go on the list, and Jan. 7, 1997, her name was added.
“If she didn’t get a transplant, the liver team at UCSF said there was a 50/50 chance of the tumor coming back,” Bryant said.
Exactly one month later, Nivia received her transplant.
“It went very well,” Bryant said. “We were back here in the Tahoe Basin by March 4 and Nivia was back teaching on May 1.”
The first checkup was scheduled for April and everything seemed to be going well.
“She was absolutely fine at the first checkup,” Bryant said. “Her liver enzymes were good. Then there was a very minor rejection, but she didn’t even know she was going through rejection.”
A biopsy on June 8 revealed that Nivia’s body had rejected the transplanted liver, but the condition could be fixed with medication.
By this time, Nivia was taking around 40 pills a day.
“Even after that, she went back to work that next day,” Bryant said. “She didn’t skip a beat. She finished the 1997 school year and was cycling all summer.”
Nivia’s cycling skills won her the gold medal in her age group in the 20-kilometer race at the U.S. Transplant Olympic Games in 1998.
Things were looking up.
“Everything was smooth sailing until December,” Bryant said. “She was having some pain in her lower back.”
Three small lesions were found in Nivia’s back, very close to her spine.
“The only option was radiation,” said Bryant, who feared surgery might cause paralysis.
After six weeks of radiation at UCSF, another tumor appeared in the top of Nivia’s neck in mid-January.
A one-time, high-powered radiation procedure was performed on Feb. 19, 1999 and Nivia seemed healthy for the next few months.
On June 1, lesions were discovered growing toward the outside of her skull.
Dr. Michael McDermott, a neurologist at UCSF, performed brain surgery on June 30.
“She was in the hospital for less than 24 hours,” Bryant said. “She recovered very well from that and we were hoping that was it.”
Two months later, a scan revealed more lesions in the thoracic region and in her sternum.
Nivia was sent to Loma Linda University Medical Center for proton radiation.
“Loma Linda was the only place in the world that did proton radiation,” Bryant said. “Little did I know those would be the last good days of her life.”
While undergoing treatment at Loma Linda, Nivia developed Ascites, an accumulation of fluid in the abdomen.
“Her transplanted liver started going sour on her in September,” Bryant said. “She was really bloated and as October came, she was even more uncomfortable.”
Nivia decided to leave Loma Linda and go back to the UCSF Liver Clinic. A scan was scheduled and she was sent home, where she would be more comfortable.
“(Before she got the scan,) she was in a lot of pain so we went back to San Francisco and they didn’t really know what was going on.”
A CT scan and an MRI were done, and certain there was no tumor, the UCSF staff sent Nivia back to Loma Linda to continue her other treatment.
“Unfortunately, that was a misdiagnosis,” Bryant said. “It was a tumor and it was the same kind of cancer (Epithiliod Hemangioendothioloma) she had in her original liver.”
Frustrated, the Bryants called Ascher at UCSF for advice.
“She (Ascher) said, ‘Nivia, finish your proton radiation and then come on back to UCSF and we’ll start a liver treatment,’ ” Bryant said.
By this time, Nivia was in so much pain that she couldn’t sleep at night.
“She was very bloated,” Bryant said. “She looked like she was six months pregnant. She was very uncomfortable and there was nothing I could do to make her feel better.”
On Nov. 23, Dave and Nivia received the news they had been dreading.
“Cindy (Galbraith,) the Transplant Coordinator at UCSF said, ‘Dave, there’s nothing that can be done,’ and Nivia was in the room at that time and so was her mother,” Bryant said.
Nivia was admitted to the hospital at UCSF, where they did a “tap” and pulled about three liters of fluid from her abdomen. The next day, they extracted two and a half more.
“She was released the day after Thanksgiving,” Bryant said. “We were asking for a time frame. They were giving us about a year, but it was shorter than that. It was less than two months.”
Back in Tahoe, Dave did his best to keep his wife comfortable and relaxed.
“Our main goal was to keep the Ascites off of her,” he said. “(Dr.) Dan Norman was very instrumental in helping to keep Nivia comfortable while she was still alive. He performed three taps on her.”
Meanwhile, Nivia was still seeing Dr. Jay Schroeder, an internal medicine specialist at the North Shore.
“Jay and Nivia became very good friends. They could talk about anything and they did,” Bryant said. “Now Jay’s become one of my dear friends, as well.”
On Dec. 5, 1999, Schroeder said Nivia had anywhere between four days and three weeks to live.
“January 13, 1999 … she died upstairs, in our bedroom, in my arms,” Bryant said. “God graciously gave me those last few moments with her and there’s no place I would have rather been.”
Pastor Dan Wilvers was again called upon to perform a ceremony.
“Amy Sando, Nivia’s dear friend planned the whole service and Dan Wilvers, the same man that married us did the memorial service, too,” Bryant said.
“She was 35 when she died and God gave her a wonderful 35 years. I knew her for seven of those years and they were the best years of my life. She was a total blessing to me, and I have comfort in knowing she’s with her Lord.”
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