Updated: Aug 6, 2022
Every year, without fail, she puts up her Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving and, like clockwork, promptly takes it down on December 26th. “I’m the first to put it up and the first to take it down,” she tells me proudly. For 40 years, she drank 1-2 beers each night. Her doctor recommended she drink alcohol more sparingly, so she quit completely — cold turkey. As a kid, she didn’t enjoy slumber parties: “Everyone always slept in,” she says, “but I wanted to get up and get the day going. I’d be by myself, dressed and ready to go, with no one to play with. It was boring.”
Her name is D’anne. Not “Deeann” or “Dianne” (heaven forbid) but D’anne. With an apostrophe. And an “e” at the end. (And if you get it wrong, don’t worry…she’ll kindly correct you.)
When I think of people who embody a resilient spirit, I think of people like D’anne: strong of mind, determined, perseverant, a master of habits, and full of life.
About 3 1/2 years ago, D’anne started experiencing some strange symptoms. She had trouble walking up the stairs and couldn’t feel her leg or raise it off the floor. An MRI revealed some nerve damage, so the neurologist concluded it was spinal stenosis with myelopathy. He recommended surgery as soon as possible. “If you don’t get this fixed, it could leave you paralyzed for life,” he told her.
She had surgery a few months later. It corrected some of the problems but left her without feeling on the left side of her body. 6 weeks later, she had a second surgery. This time, the doctors diagnosed D’anne with CIDP (Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy) and recommended infusions which she did religiously every 3 weeks for an entire year. Then, in May of 2020, almost exactly a year after her first symptoms, she made an appointment with the Mayo Clinic. The doctors concluded the CIPD was a misdiagnosis; she had been receiving transfusions for no reason.
That was nearly a year and a half ago. D’anne still can’t feel the entire left side of her body. Her left leg is heavy, her left foot drags, and her left hand is spastic. She attends physical therapy 4x/week. She uses a walker, which she affectionately refers to as “my 3-wheeler.” When asked about her symptoms, she replies, “I’m just glad it was on my left side. I’m right-handed.”
Though she won’t admit it, walking is difficult. Because she can’t feel her left foot, she must take great care to place it gingerly on the ground every time she takes a step -- with her 3-wheeler, of course.
Everything takes a lot effort, she says. It takes effort to dress in the mornings, to get out of bed, to eat, but “you just have to keep moving. It doesn’t matter what you do, you just have to keep moving. I wasn’t going to stop living because of this. People come up to me and say, ‘I would just sit at home all day’ but I like to get out. I just don’t see how people can sit at home all day.”
I ask if she ever feels tempted to sleep in.
“I don’t sleep in,” she says. “I have never slept in. I don’t even think about sleeping in. I don’t think I’ve ever slept in. Not even as a child. It just…doesn’t cross my mind.”
This mindset was fascinating to me.
“What’s the secret?” I asked. “Well,” she says, pondering the question, “I’m a creature of habit — maybe that’s it.”
And boy, talk about a creature of habit! She wakes up every day at precisely 6:30am, gets dressed, puts makeup on, and then runs errands first thing in the morning. “I like to get it done,” she says. She eats lunch at the same time each day. She eats the same thing for breakfast and lunch. She eats dinner at almost the same time every night and goes to bed at exactly the same time. “I don’t try to do all of this at the same time every day; it just happens. I’m all or nothing, and it’s real hard to get me off my habits.”
I love the philosophy of habit building, so I was eager to learn more. Was this habit mindset something innate? Conditioned in her from early childhood by her parents?
“My daddy lived to be 97. He was always so determined, come hell or high water. I think I’ve got some of that in me. For example, people tell me all the time when I try to help clean up at a lunch or party, ‘D’anne, go sit down. We’ve got it’ but I don’t like to be told what to do. I don’t like to be sitting down; I want to help. I’m very determined in that way.”
“So it seems the secret to your resiliency is determination on the one hand, and habits on the other. Anything else?”
“Yes, friends and family. I’ve had so much support from friends and my husband and family. You have to make a point to stay in touch. Keeping up with friends is important. I hate to miss parties and luncheons. I try to do it, get involved and stay involved. Oh, and a sense of humor.”
“Like your 3-wheeler?” I ask. She laughs. “Yes, like my 3-wheeler.”
D’anne makes struggle and hardship look easy. She can’t use her left hand, but by golly, she’ll make a casserole for a friend whose husband just passed away. She can barely walk, but by golly, she’ll be at church on Sunday morning. She can’t use her left foot, but by golly, you better believe she’ll be driving all around town running her errands at 10am every morning!
“I don’t like myself when I don’t accomplish something," she tells me. "It may not be much, but getting to cross it off the list -- that’s what I like.”
D'anne passed away on July 30, 2022. She was a joy to all who knew her. We are all better people for having had D'anne McGown in our lives.