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His patient roster reads like the glossary of an American history textbook...and no wonder. As a top Navy Medical Corps officer and, eventually, as the attending physician to the U.S. Congress, Rear Admiral William M. Narva spent nearly 30 years caring for our nation’s most prominent government and military leaders.
You have to respect a man who can casually recall both social and professional relationships with the likes of Senator Ted Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the legendary Admiral Chester Nimitz and a rising young brigadier general named Colin Powell. But after a few minutes of conversation with Admiral Narva, you also find yourself thinking that he is the kind of man you’d want to be your own physician: direct and perceptive, but unfailingly kind and respectful. You hear these qualities in his answers to questions about the challenges of dealing with powerful patients.
“You do have to gain their confidence and respect, and you can’t be intimidated,” he says. “I just figured it was my job to provide sound medical advice to the best of my ability, so I treated everyone equally. But the truth is, I never had problems working with people in Congress, no matter how they might have been portrayed or seen by the public. They were always compliant, pleasant and appreciative. In fact, I came away with high degree of respect for our legislators. It’s a very tough job, and most of them are committed to doing the right thing as they see it.”
Born in 1927, William Narva grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Although he would later return to complete high school, he dropped out to join the Maritime Services. Admiral Narva enrolled for a semester at New York University in the fall of 1947, but disliked its large, impersonal classes. Acting on the advice of a couple of high school buddies regarding a small college in Hempstead, Bill Narva found what he was looking for at Hofstra.
“Hofstra was growing fast with the war vets returning, but it was still a small school.” He fondly recalls the camaraderie of the tight-knit campus community, the supportive relationships with faculty, and classes in Quonset huts that had sprung up to accommodate the school’s post-war growth. He and his buddies were involved in many campus activities, from helping a young Doc Swinney paint his newly built, authentic reproduction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to cheering on one of the college’s football heroes, Hofstra’s future seventh president, James M. Shuart.
But despite William Narva’s eventual achievements, he admits that his college career got off to a somewhat shaky start.
“I knew I wanted to go to medical school, so I decided to pursue a degree in biochemistry. The problem was that the Chemistry Department chair, Professor Lutz, informed me I had scored dead last on the entrance exam. I finally convinced him to let me be a chemistry student for six months, with the agreement that if I didn’t impress him in that time, I’d never bother him again.”
After four years of straight A’s, young Bill Narva had certainly impressed Chairman Lutz, and learned an important life lesson that would stay with him throughout his extraordinary career: “When you devote yourself to a goal...when you believe in yourself and you are motivated to make things happen, they will happen,” says Admiral Narva.
Admiral Narva also acknowledges the important role mentorship has played in his life. Early on, he gained the staunch support of faculty member Dr. Leonard Brabec. It was Dr. Brabec who truly took Admiral Narva under his wing and encouraged his career direction – though not, perhaps, without some reservations as to the height of the young man’s aspirations.
“When you devote yourself to a goal... when you believe in yourself and you are motivated to make things happen, they will happen.”
“When I told him I was applying to Yale Medical School, he thought it was more than a little presumptuous,” laughs Admiral Narva. “Still, he never wavered in his support. I’ll never forget the day I brought in the acceptance letters from NYU and Yale and asked for his advice about which to attend. ‘Flip a coin,’ he said. I was dumbfounded, until he continued. ‘If the coin stands on end, go to NYU.’ He knew it was my dream, you see, and he knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t ignore. He dragged me around to every campus bigwig...all the way up to the president, Dr. John Cranford Adams. Hofstra was still a young college, and a Hofstra graduate being accepted into a top Ivy League medical school made for an amazing day for everybody.”
When he entered Yale Medical School in 1952, the realities of the military draft were still very much on would-be Dr. Narva’s mind. He decided to enlist as a naval officer and was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He entered active duty in 1955, completed an internship at Bethesda, and his residency in dermatology and infectious diseases at the naval hospitals in San Diego and Oakland.
Dr. Narva, then a lieutenant, impressed the chief of medicine at Oakland, Captain George Davis, by voluntarily joining his staff on rounds and easing concerns about lesions that looked worse than they actually were. Four years later, when Davis was named commanding officer of the Bethesda Naval Hospital, he remembered Admiral Narva and offered him the position of chief of dermatology.
“We had just bought a house in San Diego, and suddenly there was this incredible opportunity staring at us from 3,000 miles away,” said Admiral Narva. “Fortunately, my wife, Rose, is not only a brilliant businesswoman in her own right, but also the consummate Navy wife. ‘You know you’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t take this job,’ she said. So we packed up and headed back east.”
Since 1928, the U.S. Navy Medical Corps has attended to the medical needs of Congress and, by extension, most officials in the U.S. government. Less than six weeks after arriving at Bethesda, Lt. Commander William Narva found himself in the White House master bedroom examining President Lyndon Baines Johnson (who he describes as “larger than life, and probably the most intimidating man I’ve ever met”). It would be the first of many presidential encounters; in fact, Admiral Narva went on to consult with every president from Johnson to the senior George H. W. Bush before his retirement in 1990.
Over the next 25 years, Admiral Narva rose in both rank and renown, earning the promotion to rear admiral in 1982. He held successively more prominent posts, including staff medical officer for the chief of naval operations, director of the Naval Reserve’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, and vice president of the Uniform Services University of the Health Sciences. But while his own accomplishments earned him a great deal of respect, Admiral Narva also acknowledges that his wife’s professional achievements played a role in his success.
“In the 1970s, Rose was the first woman to become the general manager of a major hotel,” Admiral Narva says with evident pride and admiration. “She was managing the Jefferson Hotel in its heyday, when it was frequented by people like the Washington Post’s Katherine Graham and Benjamin Bradlee, and CIA Director Bill Casey and six Cabinet officers, including Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Attorney General William French Smith. In fact, the Jefferson became known around town as ‘White House North.’ So it was only natural we’d get together socially with some prominent people.”
Over the years, Admiral Narva found himself in the company of many of the top players in Washington’s inner circle, whether it was playing tennis with Vice President Spiro Agnew and Senator Charles Percy, or sharing coffee with President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara. Thus it was that when the time came to replace Congress’ attending physician in 1986, five names were submitted to the Congressional leadership as per protocol, but Admiral William Narva was the immediate and unanimous choice.
“I was actually about ready to retire,” admits Admiral Narva. “But when the secretary of the Navy asks you to take on a job like that, you can’t really turn it down.” Indeed, it was the crowning achievement of an already stellar career. As the attending physician to the U.S. Congress, Admiral Narva was responsible not only for the health of the entire 535-plus members of the Senate and House of Representatives, but for the nine justices of the Supreme Court as well.
Shortly after his appointment, a Washington Post reporter cornered him with a thorny question: why was a dermatologist chosen to be the attending physician of Congress? Admiral Narva responded with the glib, disarming humor that had become his trademark.
“I asked the fellow, ‘How long have you been a reporter in this town?’ ‘Fifteen years,’ he said. I replied, ‘After 15 years in Washington, you haven’t learned how thin-skinned American politicians are?’We had a good laugh, and the story went nowhere.”
A similar question was raised by a prominent senator. “What kind of doctor are you?” the senator asked. “I’m a witch doctor,” answered the admiral promptly. “A witch doctor?” the senator asked, incredulously. “That’s right,” said Narva. “You tell me what your problem is, and I’ll tell you which doctor I’m going to send you to.”
In 1990, early in the first Bush administration, Admiral Narva was finally allowed to hang up his stethoscope...at least as far as the U.S. government was concerned. Retirement from the Navy did not mean retirement from medicine, however, and Admiral Narva became a highly sought-after consultant, lecturer and adviser at several prominent institutions, including Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. Later, when his wife, Rose, opened the first Givenchy Spa in Palm Springs, the couple relocated to the West Coast once more, where Admiral Narva served on the boards of a number of medical and charitable organizations in California.
Today, Admiral Narva is happy to be Rose’s full-time “prince consort,” while she continues her own highly successful career. And instead of two- and three-star admirals, he’s rubbing elbows with stars of a different stripe: including Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, and entertainment moguls like Merv Griffin and Jackie Cooper. But he and Rose have also kept in close touch with old friends from Washington, including former First Lady Nancy Reagan, with whom they share a special bond.
“I’m in my ‘anecdotage’ now” Admiral Narva quips, stealing a favorite line from Rose. Then he gets more serious. “One of the most important things I learned in college was that opportunities will present themselves, but it’s up to you to take advantage of them. I took advantage of Hofstra’s more intimate campus character and the support of some great faculty members...it helped me build the confidence I needed to achieve success. In many ways, that first big decision – to leave NYU and go to Hofstra – was the greatest decision I ever made.”