Requiem: Donna Jean Crippen (1947-2008)

She was born precipitously in September of 1947. My dad was a surgical intern at what was then Cleveland City Hospital and we lived in “married student housing” about two blocks from the hospital. I was about four years old and this era is among my earliest forming memories. I vaguely recall the apartment as being bare and austere.  My father, or course was never there. Worked 36 hours on and 12 hours off as a surgical intern. (I did too at Bellevue in 1976-77)  He was paid $100.00 a month plus his food at the hospital and the apartment.  One night my pregnant mother started hemorrhaging per vagina and quickly passed out.  My father said it looked like an open fawcet.  She went into shock immediately and, owning no car, he fireman carried her over his shoulder two blocks to the hospital where they emergently opened her and took the baby. It is only a vague memory. The only reason either her or the baby (Donna) survived was simply because it happened on a night my father happened to be home.

Subsequently, my sister was what you would call “sickly”. Caught every bug that came around. Skinny and looked malnourished. But she had lots of friends in school and managed the social scene reasonably well. She fell in love with her then high school sweetheart and they both proclaimed each other as the loves of their lives. He accidentally drowned in a lake swimming incident in his senior year in six feet of water. Donna never recovered from this and I don’t believe ever again had a love of her life. (Her subsequent marriage in the 80s was an unmitigated disaster.)

She decided to go to nursing school and did so at a “three year” diploma school at the Medical Center of Central Georgia, where she spent the rest of her life and career. In her final year of nursing school she came down with a mysterious metabolic disease creating a hugely enlarged liver and no clear explanation. She had to be helped to the podium to graduate from nursing school. She came very close to death, I’m told. I was in Vietnam. Then for some reason someone put her on an ultra-low fat diet and she got better, but was never near “normal”..

She worked in the first aid tent of the largest rock concert in the country, the Atlanta International Pop Festival in 1970. 600,000 kids headlined by the Allman BrothersShe worked as a scrub nurse at MCCG in Macon, GA and was in the hospital the nights they brought both Duane Allman and Berry Oakley in near death from motorcycle accidents in Macon, a year apart and a block away from each other. She married probably for convenience to an affable but irresponsible guy with a drinking problem, a union that produced one child born premature at 28 weeks and multiple complications including a neonatal subarachnoid hemorrhage and resultant behavioral disasters..

Divorce followed and she essentially spent the rest of her life running interference for this learning disabled child. She was one of the founders of a school for learning disabled children in Macon, and her daughter graduated from there. At some point, inevitably, the daughter entered the parental rebellion phase and got pregnant by one of the other learning disabled students, and they eventually married. He was unable to find work due to a severe reading disability and Donna essentially supported them for years until he was able to get into a school to learn truck driving and got a good job as a local truck driver. They vanished shortly thereafter nd I don’t have any idea where they are today.

Ultimately Donna became weaker and started having trouble walking up stairs. She was again evaluated and a muscle biopsy finally yielded the diagnosis. Limb-girdle-muscular dystrophy, a chronic, debilitating disorder that can occur in females. She then worked as a hospice nurse and a phone referral nurse for doctors, filtering calls from patients calling at night. She was able to work with a minimum of walking. Ultimately the day came when she could no longer get around and was confined to a wheelchair. At this point she applied for disability, and after the usual hoop jumping and bureaucratic hassles designed to limit the number of applicants by inconvenience, she was granted some monthly income from the State.

Then it became clear that disability would not cover her real expenses. I helped her along, as I was able, not clearly understanding the situation at the time. Unbeknownst to me, she lost her car and her house. She was a victim of the utterly contemptible situation in this country where those that have get more and those that don’t do without. On 2/15/08 she complained of a flu bug and told her daughter she was going to take a nap. The daughter went to the store to grocery shop. On her return Donna was found dead in bed. She had been dead several hours and there was no sign of a struggle. She simply went to sleep permanently. I sometimes entertain the notion that she helped this process along at the end, but that will never be proven. I continue to harbor the suspicion that she ended her life by an intentional overdose of pills she had access to, but it will never be proven.

All things considered, I think it was a blessing for her to go to sleep peacefully and not wake up.   The alternative was progressive debilitation and penury. She didn’t ask me for any resources because she probably knew it would only prolong the inevitable. I should have suspected more than I did and been more aggressive in ferreting out what was going on. I might have been able to do something. I will not forgive myself for that selfish lapse.  We were never a terribly “close” family. We were all pretty independent, and that independence manifested itself as not needing family anymore once we struck out on our own. We were always cordial, but we didn’t seek each other out unless we particularly needed to. We saw each other if it was convenient. Otherwise, we didn’t think about each other much. That’s just the way it was and we all accepted it.

And I am sorry for that. Too often, families manipulate each other in thinly veiled power struggles to insure their independence is known, or their anger at another member is expressed in ways that hurt the most.  These manipulations assume an eventual amicable resolution. “I’ll show you, I’ll ignore you, then you’ll pay, and after you pay enough we’ll be OK again”. Then comes the sudden, unexpected finality of death.  Then there is never a way to make any of it right. It’s instantly left hanging at that instant, it can never, ever be resolved by any other manner. There are no “goodbyes”. No “I’m sorrys”. No “I really loved you through it all”. Just a remaining lifetime wishing it had been time to make it different. I cannot tell you the agony I have seen with sons and daughters weeping hysterically at the bedside of a suddenly dead parent because of unresolved issues. I wish I had more time to change the course of this sad situation.

Donna Jean Crippen (1947 – 2008)

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