Millicent Kondracke Dies; Parkinson's Research Activist
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2004; Page B07
Millicent Martinez Kondracke, 64, a psychotherapist whose struggle with Parkinson's disease was chronicled in a book by her journalist husband, died July 22 at her home in Washington of complications due to her illness.
Mrs. Kondracke, who counseled clients in private practice during the 1980s and 1990s and later turned to political activism to wrest medical research money from Congress, was the subject of the book "Saving Milly: Love, Politics and Parkinson's Disease" (2001).
In it, her husband, Roll Call executive editor Morton Kondracke quoted her testimony to the Senate Special Committee on Aging in 1995 about the ravages of the disease.
"I want to tell you that I live in fear every day that I won't be able to talk or walk, that I'll fall, that I'll be unable to move. I fear that my face will be frozen, that I won't be able to swallow. . . . I was never sick. I was always healthy. I didn't drink or smoke or eat too much. I exercised. But now I live in fear every single day of my life," she said.
Joan I. Samuelson, director of the Parkinson's Action Network, said Mrs. Kondracke had flashing brown eyes and the ability to project the personal toll exacted by the disease. She was "enormously consequential" as a lobbyist for increased funding for research into Parkinson's disease through the National Institutes of Health and for federal support for stem cell research, Samuelson said.
"We were invisible on Capitol Hill, in large part because of what Parkinson's does to people," Samuelson said. "It imprisons us in our own bodies, and we start living in our back bedroom and we disappear from the world. . . . But science says it's the most curable brain disorder. It's a failure of our government to fund the research, not a failure of science. Milly would connect the dots for the [senators and representatives] and that moved the Congress to start finally getting the funding to the scientists that they had been needing."
That lobbying -- compounded by the death of former Arizona congressman Morris K. Udall from the disease and the attention brought by actor Michael J. Fox, who quit his prime-time television show because he had contracted Parkinson's -- led Congress to act.
Mrs. Kondracke was a Chicago native, the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Mexican father who was a United Packinghouse Workers organizer.
Her mother suffered a nervous breakdown and left the family when she was 3 years old; her father suffered a stroke when she was 8, was deported as a communist when she was 10 and died of a heart attack a few days after arriving in Mexico. Mrs. Kondracke and her sister were raised by a family friend, a Mexican American activist who had six children of her own.
She graduated from Roosevelt University in Chicago in 1966 and received a master's degree in social work from Catholic University in 1978, 10 years after she arrived in Washington.
A friend described her as a "dyed-in-the-wool Democrat" who worked for Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1968. Her first paying job in the Washington area was at the Arlington County juvenile probation office. She then became a counselor at Catholic University and later at the Neurology Center in Bethesda.
She learned she had Parkinson's disease after she had trouble writing the letter "K" on a check and after noticing a weak finger and a slight tremor in her foot. Drugs and surgery controlled the disease for five years but then stopped working.
As she and her husband learned more about the funding for medical research aimed at finding a cure for the disease, they turned to political activism.
"Getting Parkinson's just broke her heart, and then it was broken over and over again. She was a strong-willed person with this fiery love of life, and it was just robbed, inch by inch. It was an awful thing to watch, and she just hated it," Samuelson said.
In his book, Morton Kondracke wrote, "This is not the way I want the story to end.
"I want a medical miracle to save her. But even if there is none, our story will not end. However I lose Milly, if I lose Milly, memory will survive. . . . I will keep working to end Parkinson's disease on her behalf, and I will hug her in my heart forever."
Mrs. Kondracke was the recipient of the Morris K. Udall Award for Public Service from the Parkinson's Action Network. The organization also named its advocacy award in her honor.
In addition to her husband of 36 years, survivors include two daughters, Alexandra Kondracke of Los Angeles and Andrea Kondracke of New York; and a sister.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company