Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Quadriplegic finds way to pass on blessing of therapy to others
After an accident that could have torn apart her family, paralyzed 24-year-old stays strong, positive for her loved ones.

By BILL SANDERS
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 01/21/08

Spring was 5 days old, Cindy Donald wanted to work on her tan, and the bugs in the front yard were creeping her out.

So she laid her towel down in the driveway, dialed up her best friend, and lost herself in the warm rays.

She wasn't expecting her dad to come home for lunch. And her dad wasn't expecting Cindy to be lying in the driveway.

"I was talking on the phone," Cindy said. "I heard him turning into the driveway, but I figured he saw me."

Jerry Donald didn't see his daughter.

It was the last day Cindy Donald walked.

How does a blond-haired spitfire, a former east Cobb County cheerleader, deal with being paralyzed from the neck down? How does a dad forgive himself, even when his daughter never blamed him?

For Cindy, she finds a cause bigger than herself as a way to pay forward some unexpected generosity. For her dad, the three years since the accident hasn't been enough time to find an answer to that question.

A fateful day

"I just got run over. I've got to call you back," Cindy, now 24, told Ashley Hallman, not at all playfully, but certainly not all-knowingly.

"It was just awful," Jerry Donald said, not even trying to fight back tears. "When I heard her yell, I jumped out of the car, and she was telling me that she couldn't feel anything, that she was having trouble breathing.

"I thought she was going to die in my arms and she kept telling me 'Don't blame yourself. If I die, don't blame yourself.' "

It's not that easy, he said.

"No words can describe it. I think about it all the time, day and night, replaying it in my head."

A helicopter took her to North Fulton Regional Medical Center. After a couple of days in intensive care, she was transferred to Shepherd Center, a spinal and brain rehabilitation center in Atlanta.

The news wasn't good: Cindy was paralyzed from the neck down.

Little has changed since, and Cindy knows the paralysis may be permanent.

She stays in a motorized wheelchair and is just now learning to control it with her hands instead of blowing into a straw. That's the kind of thing that counts as a victory.

"I've been doing this current therapy for 18 months to keep my body in shape," she said. "I'm keeping my body in shape so when they come up with stem cell surgery, my muscles won't be in atrophy. I'll be ready when they come up with a cure."

Darlene Donald, Cindy's mom, helps with her daughter's daily care, and Jerry Donald has been down to Shepherd many times with Cindy. He loves the spirit she brings to rehab. It's therapeutic for him to see her have such a positive attitude.

"When I talk about it, he starts crying, but I know it was an accident," she said. "I try to stay strong for my family and myself. There are days I get upset, but I still live a normal life, hang out with friends and will graduate college in May.

"He would get a whole lot more upset if I got down. This has brought our whole family a lot closer."

And that's how The Cindy Donald Story, Part One, ends.

Paying it forward

Part 2 of her story is happier, but it isn't really about walking again.

Of course, she hopes researchers will find a way to reverse the damage done to her spinal cord. And maybe Part Three will be about that cure.

This part of her saga is more about helping others, raising money for them so they can have as much a shot at recovery as she has.

When Cindy was injured, a group of men in her neighborhood rallied. Someone knows someone who knows Fredi Gonzalez, former Atlanta Braves coach and current Florida Marlins manager. And Gonzalez, well, he knows Braves manager Bobby Cox.

And someone knows U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson. And now someone knows University of Georgia football coach Mark Richt. That someone is Cindy herself, courtesy of a Shepherd Center visit from the Dogs in November.

These relationships have brought in political and sports memorabilia, perfect for auctioning off for a good cause.

The money raised — $25,000 last year — offsets the cost of her Beyond Therapy classes at Shepherd. Those sessions run about $3,500 a month, she said.

Insurance has paid for some of her bills, but continued therapy isn't covered.

Woody King, 70, was the catalyst of the fund-raising.

"Cindy lived in my subdivision, but I didn't know her," he said. "I do a lot of walking and saw her in wheelchair. I didn't know what to do. It was uncomfortable really. She knew me because she'd seen me walking so many times. So we talked, and I Iiked the gal. She was so upbeat.

"I drink coffee at a bagel shop with four or five guys and we started talking about her and her attitude. One of the guys does magic on side and someone suggested having a fund-raiser. This will be our third one."

Two questions have been nagging and inspiring Cindy for some time now.

What if Woody King and his friends hadn't decided to help out Cindy?

More optimistically, why can't such an idea expand and create a scholarship for someone else in need?

"I love the Shepherd program, the people, they way they work with each person individually," Cindy said. "It's hard sometimes, and I get down sometimes. But if it weren't for this program, I'd be far worse off. I want others to have this chance."

To this day, Jerry Donald is amazed at what King and his friends have done for his family.

"They are like angels," he said "They came out of nowhere, like God sent them to us. I don't know what we would have done without them."

Last year about 200 people attended the magic show and auction.

King and the Donalds hope at least that many will come this year. The Jan. 26 event is open to the public and is at the Mountain View Community Center at 3400 Sandy Plains Road.

For now, contributions can be made to the Cindy M. Donald Fund at any Wachovia branch. By the spring, she hopes to have the separate Cindy Donald Dreams of Recovery Foundation up and running, kicking it off with a golf tournament.

"There are people I know, friends I have now, that I know could use the kind of help that was given me," Cindy said. "I've been thinking about how to do this a long time now."


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