At the end of Tuesday’s Palm Coast City Council meeting, several council members spoke for the first time publicly of the reason the mayor’s chair had been empty for weeks.
“I just want to have a couple of comfort words for our mayor,” Council member Eddie Branquinho said of Milissa Holland, “who’s going through a rough time, sitting next to her daughter, that she needs a big miracle to bring her back home.” Jack Howell mentioned the mayor’s 23-year-old daughter Tori by name. “And hopefully the young lady will heal and everything will turn out all right,” he said. “I know she had one heck of a surgery.” Nick Klufas, who’s been the acting mayor for those weeks, spoke of “the power of positive thoughts.”
It was an understated acknowledgment of what has been an unrelenting, agonizing few weeks for the mayor and her daughter, the culmination of a six and a half year struggle that finally resulted in a liver transplant for Tori 17 days ago. That took place after a winter, spring and summer of deteriorating health that had Holland at Tori’s bedside and advocating on her behalf in a half dozen hospitals across the state, some of them less than Hippocratic, before they ended up in the hands of a dedicated team in Miami, where Holland has been since mid-August.
Tori remains in critical condition and an induced coma since before the surgery, each day bringing new hopes, dashed hopes, new procedures, more uncertainty, the hourly visits of specialists, and the ceaseless anxiety and helplessness of a mother who, to the incomprehension of her friends and colleagues, has somehow managed to keep it together and meet her responsibilities–to the city council, to her job at Coastal Cloud, and of course to her daughter.
Holland credits the outpouring of community support she continues to receive–and the technology she has at hand, from computers to phones to remote live conferencing apps that allow her to keep working, participate in meetings and keep up with a series of initiatives that have her imprint. And when necessary, she’s left her daughter’s bedside to be in the city, as she was during the last hurricane emergency even though it was also a critical time in the organ-donor whirlwind she’d been navigating for weeks.
“She literally is the strongest person I’ve ever met,” Tim Hale, co-founder and managing partner with Sara Hale of Coastal Cloud. “Frankly I don’t know how any of us could deal with this in isolation and at the same time be the mayor of the city with all the responsibilities not only she has, but performs. I honestly don’t know where she gets the strength. We’re just honored to know her.”
The mayor’s chair at city meetings may look empty, but it’s been a bit of an illusion: City Hall hasn’t lacked for Holland’s presence in many more senses of the term than it implies. Matt Morton, the city manager, says Holland is “present” with every interaction, her focus and attention to city issues still unwavering whatever challenge she may be facing within a few feet of her in Miami.
“I’m frankly amazed. I don’t know where she draws her well of strength and resilience because it is immense, and I’d say as far as her engagement level, she hasn’t missed a stride,” Morton said today, describing the frequency and variety of her contacts. “She has never wavered being the mayor. There’s never been a day where me, council or staff has said, ‘where’s the mayor.”
Holland drove the hiring of Morton last spring during some of her most challenging times with Tori, ending up with a hyper-energetic manager who can exude enthusiasm and optimism in spades: just what she needs, really, though she’s never lacked either. And still, Morton finds she’s the one who continues to energize him rather than the other way around. “I find her inspiring me and driving us as a city team to succeed more than we’ve had the opportunity to do the same for her,” he said. “It is inspiring. I’ll call, check in, see how she’s doing, and it always turns up being the opposite,” as if she were the one giving up “a piece of herself to ensure the city was successful.”
But that’s how those who know Holland are speaking of her these days, the words “awe,” “resilience,” “inspiring” and “don’t know how she does it” recurring like the different parts of a Greek chorus, and not just because of this latest challenge: Holland’s life has been an almost unforgiving series of private and public challenges, some of which she has spoken of publicly, some of which have been part of her life as a progressive county commissioner and mayor in a county not known for its progressive spirit, none of which have approached the ceaseless anguish she has known over the years of her daughter’s illness.
“I don’t have any children, so I can’t imagine what that feeling must be, what that helplessness must be, there’s just not any words,” Klufas said. “We’re just trying to be as understanding as possible, and anything we can do for her we will, but she’s so strong, she doesn’t ask for anything. She somehow can handle all this and I don’t know how, I don’t know how she doesn’t break down. Somehow her resiliency is incredible to me.”
Holland this morning agreed to an interview and spoke at length about the last few months and particularly the last few weeks. She spoke not long after getting contacted by other mayors in Flagler, a sliver of the officials who have been in contact with her. “They call and they text regularly, including the constitutional officers,” Holland said. “I have received nothing but overwhelming support from all of my colleagues throughout the county. It’s been extraordinary. It’s in times like these that you really truly are able to reflect on the importance of relationships and how the impact you have on others’ lives–how they feel impacted by this journey.”
For all the calls and support and Facebook wishes and inspiration though, Holland’s journey–as a single mother–has been hers and Tori’s burden alone, with Tori in and out of hospitals about 80 percent of the time in the last four years. Holland has had to cope with the inconceivable several times along the way, preparing herself for the worst, only to keep riding the rollercoaster, the latest reprieve.
But how? “I grew up in a household with a father in a chronic illness that really almost prepared me for having a child that became very ill,” Holland said of her father Jim Holland, one of the city’s founding council members who died in office in 2002. “So mentally there’s no really true way to prepare for something when your child is not doing well. You certainly feel helpless and at times hopeless, but I always remain truthful and hopeful to the point of focusing on Tori. That’s always been my priority. I take a lot of walks, I have a great support system that I connect with daily. I’m doing the best I can do.”
She credits the Hales especially, whom she considers family, the community’s embrace, the technology that has allowed her to keep working, and a certain routine to remain centered. “Morning meditation every single morning for at least 20 minutes,” Holland said. “It’s my moment to take some time to just breathe. I do a lot of meditated breathing throughout the day where it allows me to calm my thoughts. I try to stay away from any type of research on certainly what I’m seeing with Tori’s condition. I don’t think that’s a healthy way. I rely a lot on the doctors and their updates. But I’m tired, there’s no doubt, I’m exhausted, and sleep has not been a friend to me. So I try to sleep when I can. And so every day is different.”
She speaks of the way her daughter’s illness, progressive as it was, had always meant that a transplant was her only hope for survival. “We were grateful for receiving such an extraordinary gift, one I’ll never be fully able to thank or come to terms with the significance of the donation itself,” she said. “But it’s not an easy surgery, it’s not an easy procedure to have any type of transplant. It’s very expensive and there are a lot of possibilities and factors that go into the outcome of such a procedure. She does remain in ICU and has not been able to become stabilized.” But from all indications, she has not rejected the liver.
“You really, truly come to realize how fragile the human system is and how complicated it is when it comes to a connection to your organs,” Holland continued. “Knowing the liver is responsible for a tremendous amount in the body, it has caused serious complications to the point of serious concern. I’ve become very accustomed to bad news. Then I would become sort of cautiously optimistic when we would receive overwhelming news. I’m somewhere in the middle today. I straddle those from hour to hour.”
Colleen Conklin, the school board member and a long-time friend of Holland’s, used many of the same words others do when describing the Mayor, but could also speak as kindred mother. “I have no doubt Tori is going to make it. She will pull through this, but it’s just agony to watch your child go through it,” Conklin said. She’d spoken to Holland about Cat Bradley, who discovered she’d need a transplant when she was a junior at Flagler Palm Coast High School, went through it, recovered, and is now a teacher in the district. (The Observer wrote her story a few years ago.)
What she’s seeing in the mayor now is “typical of Milissa,” Conklin said–the drive, the resolve, the poise. But don’t mistake it for invulnerability.
“I think that she sets things in certain boxes that when she has to open them, she can deal with them, and when there are other boxes that are possibly too much to bear at that moment in time, she has to separate herself from that at that moment,” Conklin said. “But I don’t know, I’m not her, and I think everybody would respond differently. I think when you’re a parent and you respond to something like this, you go into automatic pilot mode, and I worry for her as a friend. It’s a survival technique, but the stress has to be tremendous.
“I’ve seen amazing people going through challenging times but they’re on automatic pilot. It’s after the fact when they hit that wall that really worries me. And Tori is going to survive this. That is my daily prayer for this, that they will both weather this storm.”