‘SHE WAS LIKE A MOTHER’: SURVILLA REMEMBERED AS A ‘ONE IN A MILLION PERSON’

YIGIT KACMAZ, NEWS WRITER

Dr. Maria Paula Survilla, who died in April, touched hearts by filling many roles: mother, wife, musicologist, businesswoman, listener, writer, artist, Wartburg family, friend, one of us.

Her death due to Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease at age 56 was unexpected.  

Dr. Maria Paula Survilla

“Creutzfeldtt-Jacob Disease is literally a one in a million disease. In a weird way, of course if Paula were to be contracting a disease, it would be a one in a million disease,” Dr. Joyce Boss, professor of English at Wartburg, said. “She was a one in a million person.”

Boss’ friendship with Survilla dates back to 1995, when Boss moved to Waverly to teach at Wartburg, one year after Survilla did. Boss’ family has been friends of the Wachmann-Survilla family for years prior to Survilla’s death.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease is a rapidly progressive and always fatal neurological disorder. It is unclear how Survilla contracted the disease. 

“It was in February when she lost her balance and she bumped her head, and we thought maybe she had a concussion,” Eric Wachmann, her husband and a Wartburg professor of music, said. “It did not get better. Her speech got worse, her balance got worse and that was it.”

The Wachmann family took Survilla to the University of Iowa Hospital after she lost her balance. After seeing a neurologist, she was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. 

“They confirmed the diagnosis there and we came back on the 31st of March from the hospital and she was gone 25 days later,” Wachmann said. “It was all very quick, what we saw was the end of her life.”   

Wachmann grieved when Survilla was sleeping, but when she was awake, he would help her and give her all of his attention, he said. On the other hand, to their son, Vaalik Wachmann, it was hard.

“It was very difficult to try and live with the way she acted. Closer to the end of her life, the way she acted just almost did not feel like it was her anymore,” Vaalik said. “One day my dad gave her a pencil and paper and said, ‘Why don’t you do some drawing?’ She could not draw anything.”

The Wachmanns used to take Survilla to Cedar Bend Park and the bike path on her wheelchair to try to keep her happy until she could not go outside anymore.

“Anton [her other son] used to sit and read with her and Vaalik would sit and show her things on the computer, she used to listen to the books. When she could not do that, we kept her comfortable, she listened to music and we tried to make every day a good day,” Eric Wachmann said. “I used to hold her hand and she had a very, very tight grip. She was always aware of what was going on around her, she was always aware of the presence, and I knew that when that grip was not there anymore.” 

“I used to hold her hand and she had a very, very tight grip. She was always aware of what was going on around her, she was always aware of the presence, and I knew that when that grip was not there anymore.” 

– Eric wachmann

Survilla was born in Spain to Belarusian parents in 1964 and lived there until 1969 when the Survilla family moved to Ottawa, Canada. Survilla met her husband in a town called Hull, right across the Ottawa River, where both studied in the same high school. However, their relationship did not start until college. In fact, their relationship was much different in high school. 

Wachmann dated Survilla’s best friend in high school. According to him, their relationship did not cause any drama between Survilla and her best friend. As a matter of fact, the two were still best friends and both families remained very close until Survilla’s death. 

Wachmann had an important impact on Survilla. When she was fulfilling all the requirements to study biology at the university, Wachmann convinced her to do music. 

“She said, ‘I really want to do music, I am really interested in this.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t you go ahead and go into music?’ So she decided to go into music,” Eric Wachmann said. 

The two got married when they were 23, right after finishing their college degrees – though this is not something they would recommend to their students, Eric Wachmann said. The two remained married for 33 more years.  

“I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her,” he said of marrying Survilla, who he misses deeply. “Everything … everything, everything, her presence, her smile, her laughter, and everything.”

Survilla was an ethnomusicology and musicology professor at Wartburg for 26 years, but she was much more than that. She was the faculty advisor for French Club, she was the president of the Center for Belarusian Studies and more. Moreover, with the help of her international experiences, such as growing up as an immigrant in Spain and Canada, she was assigned to international students’ IS [Inquiry Studies] class and became like a mother to many of them. 

 “I was so comfortable in my first class with her, that is why I chose the second one,” Romely Rodriguez, an international second-year student from the Dominican Republic, said. 

The most unforgettable memory for Rodriguez is when Survilla invited her and other international students for dinner with her family. Despite Survilla being sick, Rodriguez never realized any change.

 “I never saw her complaining, feeling tired, or feeling sad. She was as nice as she always was,” Rodriguez said. 

“I did not know that she had such a large impact when it came to people on campus. … She was like a mother to other people when it came to college work, like international students,” Vaalik said.

Due to COVID-19, memorial services were delayed until the fall of 2020. Eric Wachmann and Pastor Brian Beckstrom are working together to have a memorial in October for Survilla.

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