San Diego City Councilwoman Marti Emerald at Metropolitan Transit System board meeting on Feb. 12. Photo by Donald H. Harrison

By Donald H. Harrison

Confident of her recovery from breast cancer, for which she currently is undergoing radiation five days a week, City Councilwoman Marti Emerald says she plans to run in 2016 for another four-year term in part because she wants to protect the children of the 9th District against violence and future PTSD.

Emerald discussed her Jewish upbringing, her battle with cancer, and some of her political priorities over lunch Thursday, Feb. 12, following the conclusion of a Metropolitan Transit System board meeting at which limitations were lifted on the number of taxi permits to be issued in the future.

Although Emerald said her morning radiation treatments typically leave her quite tired by the afternoon, she was clearly energized over lunch Thursday by the outcome of the MTS board meeting.

Having “first-stage” cancer which required the removal of a small lump from her breast, she said, has made her “more motivated than ever to get things done.”

Licences for taxi workers, she added,  “was a big issue, to give them the opportunity to be their own boss and not indentured servants to cab owners who charge them outrageous lease prices.”

Cab owners “had their ride for a long time—30 years—and now it is time to give a new generation an opportunity to get their foothold on the world.  That was very important!”

Some other issues stressed by Emerald, who chairs the council’s committee on Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods, are raising salaries for San Diego police officers to make their pay levels more competitive with other jurisdictions, fashioning a bond issue for voter approval to build between 12 and 15 new fire stations in the city, and working with the city school board to popularize Trauma Informed Care at schools to respond to children suffering from PTSD.

“We find some children going to school in our neighborhoods have PTSD because of the crime that they see, police activities, arrests, shootings, stabbings, drug abuse,” said Emerald, whose councilmanic district stretches along University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard from mid-city to the city limits with La Mesa.

“There is a program emerging now within San Diego Schools and it is catching on around the country,” she said. “Staff at schools are trained to recognize symptoms of PTSD and work with children right there at the school level to help them cope, to do therapies, to help them express themselves, and work with families.”

Emerald said that psychiatrists who work with veteran programs believe that some soldiers suffering from PTSD struggled with the condition even before they went in the military so “the earlier we can catch young people who are growing up in environments where they are exposed to violence and trauma, the earlier they can get the attention they need so they don’t grow up to be people who are struggling with mental illness.”

Listening to Emerald as she expounds upon the problems within San Diego’s inner city neighborhoods, one remembers that before her election to the City Council in 2010, she spent 21 years as the “troubleshooter” on KGTV Channel 10, a role in which she advocated for consumers and occasionally had to butt heads with government bureaucrats.

She won 13 Emmys for her coverage over the years.  A major undercover assignment was living for a few days as a homeless person in order to tell the story from a street-level perspective.

“It was just a couple of days on the streets, not long, but enough to have to find a place to sleep at night, to navigate the services, to talk to other homeless people about how do you do it out here, and to test the new generation of wireless mike, which was terrible,” she recalled.  “It was enough to get a sense that once you are out there, it is a Catch-22 – how invisible people are, and for women and children, in particular, how completely vulnerable they are with no one to really protect them and stand up for their interests.  It hasn’t changed a whole lot, except now I do see political will to make a difference.”

Emerald noted that supportive housing is being built in various parts of the city, and she complimented her council colleague Todd Gloria for leading the effort to help alleviate conditions for the homeless.

Because she has been a public person for nearly three decades—first as a television reporter and now as a councilmember – Emerald said she decided to publicly share her battle with cancer.

Last August, she related, her doctor called to remind her that she hadn’t had a full physical examination in nine years, nor a mammogram in several years.  “So I did all the other things—the labs and so on—and everything was fine, healthy as a horse – as big as a horse, but I’m healthy –and when I got the mammogram I saw the spot.  It’s all digital and on the computer screen.  I saw a big white spot there, and in my heart I knew that wasn’t right.  The tech—they never diagnose—said it looks like we’re going to have to come back and get an ultrasound, and they did that, and it ruled out calcium deposits.  So we were going in the direction where I figured I was going to get bad news, so I started preparing for it.

“They asked me to come back for a biopsy at Sharp Grossmont.  I had already planned on going on the Chamber (of Commerce)’s lobbying trip to Washington to beat up on our delegation and meet people who might be helpful to San Diego.  I had a lovely weekend in D.C. preparing for the Monday meetings to start, and sure enough, Monday morning, my phone rings and I got the news from the doctor.  He said it is a cancer.  I asked ‘do I need to get back right away?’ and he said ‘W ell, that’s up to you. If you want to stay a few days before we get started…’  I knew I couldn’t really focus so I changed my airline reservation and left the next morning for San Diego.

“So I got the news on Monday, and immediately I asked my doctor, ‘please call the oncologist and help me get in right away,’ so on Wednesday morning I was seeing the oncologist, and Thursday I was in with the surgeon, and on Friday, I was in surgery getting the tumor removed.  It was an aggressive growth, an aggressive kind of cancer, so it was a good thing I got it out right away.  We did a follow up genomic test, which indicated that I had a moderate chance of it coming back, so we decided to add chemotherapy to the regimen.  I started chemo as soon as my incisions were healed up. That was a 12-week regimen, and then I started radiation a few weeks ago.  I still have about four weeks of radiation left.”

While many Jewish women have a gene which indicates a pre-disposition to cancer, Emerald learned that “I don’t have that gene, for which I was thankful because that meant I probably have a better chance of no recurrence of the disease.  That was something I was really curious about.  My mother (maiden name Newman) never had problems, and I don’t have history otherwise on my family and background.”

Besides the lump in her breast, the surgeon removed lymph nodes, “and looked there to see if there is cancer and there was none.  The radiation I’m doing now is daily Monday through Friday, and it takes about 15 minutes and they do scans to line everything up.  It is targeted radiation, and I am their first patient every morning.”

When treatments caused her hair to fall out, she said, “I did get a wig and I was wearing it some, but quite frankly it made my head hot. It itched, and I thought, screw it, I will be comfortable. So I go with my scarves, and sometimes a bald head.”

Emerald said as a result of her cancer fight being public, “people walk up to me and say ‘thank you,’ and ‘we’re praying for you,’ and ‘we support you.’  It has been overwhelming and humbling.”  Often Emerald is told that she has “taken the mystery out of cancer… Some will say ‘my sister’ or ‘my mother’ or someone was recently diagnosed and it really helped to have your experience out there, talking about what to expect, where resources are with (the Susan G.) Komen (Breast Cancer Foundation) and the American Cancer Society, and whatever it might be.”

The councilwoman has a busy schedule, attending regular meetings of the council, chairing an important committee, and attending regional board meetings such as the MTS.  Yet, she anticipates an even busier schedule in the future with the cancer community.  “I expect I will be volunteering and helping to carry the message,” she said.  She also anticipates that she will step up her involvement with the Jewish community by more frequently attending worship services at Temple Emanu-El, which is “just across the freeway {Interstate 8) ” from a portion of her district.  Emerald was married under a chuppah to Myron Klarfeld, and they were together for 12 years before his death in February 2011.   Recently, she was married again under a chuppah to Karl Bradley, facilities manager of the Sweetwater Union High School District.

While Emerald’s mother was Jewish and she grew up comfortable with Jewish tradition, the councilwoman said it wasn’t until 2002 that she embraced her Jewish identity with any sense of commitment.  She credited two local rabbis with being important in the further development of her Jewish identity—Rabbi Martin S. Lawson, now emeritus rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, and Rabbi Laurie Coskey, executive director of the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice.

Recently celebrating her 60th birthday, amid her cancer treatments, Emerald said she asks herself everyday “What is it I want to accomplish? What are my priorities?  How should I reorganize a little bit?”

“I’ll tell you,” she said, “every day is a blessing, I have a greater appreciation.  “I always have been pretty focused on making the most of each day, and acknowledging accomplishments and lessons and that sort of thing—a personal debrief at the end of the day.  That is important to me, to know where I can grow and change, and what accomplishments I can feel good about.”

After a moment, she said: “I’m really concerned about the well-being of the kids in our district.  We have the youngest district per capita, nearly half the people are under 18, and so many are being raised by single parents and in poverty.  I want to work more closely with the schools…. We’ve got to get a transit line out the I-15 built to give an opportunity for people in the mid-city area to go up the 15 to try to get good jobs.”

Emerald said being a City Council member is energizing.  “There is no problem too great to solve if we work together to solve it, if we are communicating with each other,” she said.  “That is how we always have worked in our office, cooperatively, and that is how we will continue to work.  I am looking forward to another term…  I think we have done well in the last six years and we’ll do well in the next six.”

Donald H. Harrison is editor of the San Diego Jewish World.

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