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Make a difference: It could be the difference

I used to take the same meandering route once a month, sometimes twice, from our place to hers always leaving enough time to arrive a few minutes early just in case there was some last minute assistance required.

There rarely was.

Donna lived by herself in a clean, comfortable condo not too far from the airport.

Val and I had met with several of the staff at Interfaith Caregivers months before, answered questions and provided the necessary personal information to be added to their list of volunteer drivers.

I had informed them that because I was self-employed I had a somewhat flexible schedule.

Over the next couple of months, we would give a number of folks, clients of Interfaith, rides to various types of appointments, mostly for medical reasons, to facilities both local and across the river in Minnesota.

Eventually I received a call from Kate, the ride coordinator at Interfaith, asking me if I would be comfortable driving a client’s vehicle for a standing monthly appointment over in Wyoming, Minnesota.

The vehicle was specifically outfitted to accommodate the client’s special needs.

I would need to meet with a staff person and the client the first time just to run through how everything worked.

I admit, over the phone it sounded a little intimidating but also interesting, so I agreed to give it a shot.

I remember the first time we met, I was far more nervous than was Donna. Fortunately her van was the same Dodge model I drove with the exception that it had an automatic folding ramp, hand controls for braking and accelerating and no passenger side front seat or middle seats.

That allowed just enough room for Donna to drive her highly sophisticated wheelchair up the ramp, turn 90 degrees, back up just slightly and then pull forward into the spot where the front passenger seat would have been, all while looking directly forward.

She navigated by proximity.

I was immediately impressed.

Once she got herself into position, I would attach four heavy duty adjustable fabric straps with “S” hooks to eyelets welded to the frame of her chair, two in back and two in front, and cinch them up tight.

Then I would pass the seatbelt/shoulder strap over her lap, which she would hold, close her door, hit the remote control to contract the ramp and close the side sliding door on my way around to the driver side, climb in, attach her seat belt, attach mine and we would be ready to ride.

The hand-operated controls were for Donna, I was still able to use the traditional pedals on the floor.

Whew!

I think you could say we hit it off.

Neither one of us was overly chatty, just the basics to get started. I explained that I was a photographer and that Val and I had moved to the area not too long before from Chicago. Donna had a bookkeeping background and had worked for a local construction company and had done some tax work for folks on the side.

One of the first things I realized about Donna was that she was forthright and honest.

She had to be.

Communication made her life go.

She also had a sense of humor and a fierce independence which I came to admire greatly over our three years of travels together.

I don’t remember exactly when the wheelchair disappeared, but at some point it was just Donna sharing stories about a high school trip to Europe, giving her niece advice about college, seeing a bit of herself in how stubborn her aging parents were, disappointed with a recent Packers game, making plans with her caseworker to take accounting classes at home, laughing at a story on the radio.

We spent three hours together several times a month traversing back and forth between her home and her doctors. It was amazing how much we shared.

There had been a boyfriend, pretty serious until her MS. In bits and pieces she told me the story of her disease.

Early on, she had lost her eyesight for a while.

She told me how temperature affected her ability to function and how she was now a pioneer, on a powerful medication longer than anyone with MS up to that point.

She was basically an experiment at this point, something she wanted to continue.

She was frustrated by how difficult it was to establish any kind of consistent relationship with the care agencies that provided aides to help her get ready in the morning and get her into bed at night.

The people I met changed frequently and when there was a gap, usually her sister filled in.

We talked about different drugs, about her doctors and about the cost of her care.

We picked up stylish new glasses, washed the van, made deposits at the bank, and filled up with gas.

Eventually I read outloud the questions and filled out the forms at the doctors and she signed with her X.

Donna was brave, and smart and interesting. Her life depended on her wheelchair, but it did not define who she was.

Eventually there were extra trips for special tests. I was able to make most of them.

Things would get out of balance. Donna explained to me there were a few blackouts, loss of memory.

Medications were adjusted and nutrition revisited.

In the back of my mind, I had always been a little afraid, what if something happened and she really needed me?

Her self-assurance and matter-of-fact outlook put me at ease and our friendship gave me confidence that whatever it was, we’d figure it out.

I did not know it was our last ride together.

I got a call from her sister telling me Donna had died and thank you.

That’s the funny thing about strangers, you don’t stay that way.

It is so easy to get caught up in the lofty goals and big dreams, the cynicism and outrage.

To be overwhelmed by how much there is to do and how little time, to find excuses and close ourselves off.

Here is a suggestion to change that — volunteer.

Put yourself out there, one person, one child at a time, just a few hours.

Donna reminded me of how significant every person is and how little it takes to connect, befriend and belong.

Donna’s death made me appreciate her strength and determination even more and she helped me realize the biggest differences are personal.

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