The Donna Carson Story: A Legacy of Love


For years, family members cared for Donna Carson, paralyzed by polio. When their energies were exhausted, hundreds stepped in and helped.

On Riverton Road west of Blackfoot, Idaho, sits an old farmstead. Tall, half-barren trees lead to a little green frame house, its wood stove sending smoke into the clear blue air. Many have stopped here over the years, crossing a bridge and following a grassy path to the house. Waiting for them inside was the experience of a lifetime.

Nearly four decades ago Donna Carson left this farm home as a happy and excited young missionary to serve the Church near Boston, Massachusetts. Gone only four months, she fell victim to the 1955 polio epidemic that struck the eastern United States. A day after being admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital, she found herself paralyzed and struggling for life inside an iron lung.

Back home in Idaho, Donna’s father, George, continued to work on the farm so his wife, Ethel, could go east to care for their only daughter. For fourteen months, as polio patients died all around her, Sister Carson served at Donna’s side, tending to her needs through small openings in the iron lung.

Eighteen months after her departure, Donna and her mother returned to Idaho, her missionary work completed but her mission in life only beginning. She was paralyzed from the neck down, with only limited use of three fingers on her left hand.

Donna spent her days lying motionless in a hospital bed set up in the converted dining room of her childhood home, her frail body etched between white sheets, while oxygen gurgled from a respirator through a tube to her mouth. Although all of Donna’s motor nerves were paralyzed and she had no movement, all of her sensory nerves remained active. She experienced extreme pain but could not move, even to wipe a tear. Her physical condition deteriorated until her bones became brittle and easily cracked. Breathing became difficult.

George and Ethel tirelessly cared for their daughter with the help of Donna’s brother Dene and his wife, Donna Lou. Month after month, year after year, they performed therapy on an exercise board, working her legs and following a special regimen developed by her mother to keep her skin in good condition. Dene and Donna Lou helped with groceries and meals and yard work.

Ethel continued to care for Donna until 1969, when Ethel suffered a severe heart attack. Then, after suffering several strokes, George passed away in 1986. He had lovingly cared for Donna even as his own strength failed; his greatest sorrow had come when he could no longer serve her.

Over the years, friends and family had assisted regularly. But as Brother and Sister Carson’s health began to fail, hundreds of lives changed as full-time service led to new levels of compassion.

Donna organized the help as much as she could. Her mother would dial a phone number, and then Donna would speak through a special microphone into the telephone. She didn’t want Church assignments to be made; she wanted the help to come from unassigned volunteers. And come they did—from every age group and every walk of life.

One girl began her visits as a high school student and continued after she was married. One evening when she was a young mother, she was unable to keep her weekly appointment, so she asked Donna if she could help make some calls. Donna agreed, and her friend began to handle the scheduling. At first Donna required only one person in the morning and one in the evening. But gradually the need progressed until one was needed in the early hours of the morning, two later in the morning, two in the evening, and one to stay overnight—six helpers, seven days a week. For fourteen years, while caring for her own family, Donna’s friend consistently organized hundreds of men and women who willingly came to help. At one time, forty-five people served on a regular basis.

Why did they come? Their answers reflect the nature of their service:

“I came because I loved her.”

“If I couldn’t have helped, there would have been a great void in my life.”

“She was my friend. You can’t do compassionate service without learning to care.”

“It was an honor. It was no imposition at all.”

One friend made Donna’s nightgowns. Another came once a week to do her hair. Others helped Donna do Christmas shopping by catalog. Candles were blown on birthdays, the Easter bunny came, and there were treats for trick-or-treaters. One friend made more than forty cross-stitched wall hangings with the words “Thank you for being my friend” for Donna to give as Christmas gifts to all who regularly served her.

In the winter, young people chopped wood and shoveled snow so the volunteers could get to her home. The power company employees always watched the transformers if the power was down in the area, because Donna’s life depended on her respirator. One man wired in a backup generator, and another fitted the telephone with a microphone so Donna could communicate better. A few years ago, a stake conference session was transmitted to Donna over the telephone. As the session began, she and her helper joked together about not having to go to the meeting and yet having the best seats in the house—little realizing that their conversation was feeding back over the microphone and being enjoyed by everyone in the chapel.

One friend from the days of Donna’s youth visited her every week for more than thirty years. She confides that she had to remind herself that Donna was crippled, for when she went to visit she didn’t see a frail, disabled body, but saw instead a vibrant and loving friend with whom she shared memories of dates and parties and fishing trips.

Service with Donna was always a two-way street. For years she taught the Laurels as they met around her bed. Many of these girls began writing as scribes for Donna; she loved them, and they loved her. Being so dependent had developed in her the art of receiving and the ability to reflect and magnify the good in others. Many who came to serve Donna left enriched by her humor and steady perspective based on eternal values.

One woman began helping Donna when she took over for her mother after her parents were called on a mission. Every Saturday night for nearly eight years she traveled twelve miles to be with Donna, missing only one evening when she was snowed in. During this time, this young mother had suffered the loss of her husband and three of her children. In spite of her sorrow, she continued to help.

“I needed something to keep me going,” she said. “Donna always gave me a spiritual lift. One day when I was having a really hard time, I said to Donna, ‘How long did it take you to accept your condition?’

“‘Years and years and years,’ she said. But Donna was always careful not to complain or let self-pity surface. And she wouldn’t allow others to feel sorry for her.”

Donna’s physical care was taxing for everyone—and frequently quite painful for her. Sometimes no matter how carefully she was moved, bones would break. She was fed and bathed daily and dressed in a clean gown. Her hair was meticulously combed and her nails groomed. Sheepskin was placed under her at night, then her stiff fingers were placed on her air tube so she could move it in and out of her mouth to breathe.

Several priesthood holders would take turns staying through the night. They slept on a couch near the bedroom door, listening so they could assist Donna when she awoke. When she became ill, these helpers sometimes spent the night lying on the floor next to Donna’s bed, close enough to watch her breathe and assist if she choked. One night Donna became comatose, and friends sat through long nights holding the air hose in her mouth.

“We prayed her alive,” says one priesthood leader. “We were afraid that if we didn’t have her with us, selfishness would come back into our hearts. There were so many who needed to learn what Donna taught us.”

One of the best lessons Donna taught was to accept others for who they are. “We all assume roles for the world around us,” says one sister, “but when you went to Donna’s, you could just be yourself. There was no need for pretense. She was for real. Everyone was accepted and loved, regardless of their background or problems.”

Years ago a young girl in the area had strayed from the Church and had become rebellious. She was finally persuaded to write letters for Donna, and the two developed a special relationship. Donna challenged her to a contest to read the Old Testament. A year later her young friend went on a mission, and she continued to visit Donna regularly after she returned from her mission and married.

Service to Donna knew no religious barriers. Volunteers from many faiths found their way to Donna’s house each week. They knew how much she loved the Lord. “We were blessed whenever we went,” one father says. “A special spirit abode there.”

Though perhaps not all understood that spirit, everyone who visited the little home did indeed feel something special. Years ago a man with severe handicaps grew to adulthood in the community. Among his disabilities was a badly impaired arm. At one time he was able to live alone. One day his mother mentioned Donna, and he asked to visit her. The visit lasted for only a few minutes, but about a week later he asked to visit Donna again. When his mother came to pick him up, she found him waiting on the corner with a rose in his hand.

Standing at Donna’s bedside, he used his healthy arm to hand her the rose. Being paralyzed, she of course couldn’t move to receive his gift. For the first time, this man recognized her predicament. He went out to the car and wept. “I didn’t realize she couldn’t do the things I can do,” he said. The week before, he hadn’t even realized she was frail and disabled; he had seen only her grace and strength of spirit.

Donna rarely saw the outside world. One of those rare times occurred years ago when the Idaho Falls Temple made special arrangements so Donna could attend a session. Her ailing parents attended in wheelchairs, and Donna was carried on a stretcher. She rode to the temple in the back of another friend’s van, which had a portable air machine connected to the battery.

The temple arranged for extension cords in each room to accommodate the respirator. A good friend did the work vicariously as Donna watched. After the session, they placed Donna’s stretcher in the celestial room, where she was greeted by each patron who attended with her.

After the session, Donna’s bishop and his wife followed the van carrying Donna home. When the van turned toward downtown Blackfoot instead of toward the Carson home, the bishop panicked. He worried that something must be wrong and assumed they were heading for the hospital. Then suddenly, to everyone’s surprise, the van turned in at the drive-in window of a fast-food restaurant. And why not? Donna wanted a fish burger!

A number of bishops blessed Donna’s life—and were blessed in return. One met her for the first time as an elders quorum president. But when he was first asked to help, he declined. “I felt there was nothing I could offer,” he says. He was eventually prevailed upon to go, but he was still reluctant. He expected to be speechless. What could he say?

When he stood at her bedroom door, Donna said, “Hello. I’ve been waiting for you. You’re afraid of me, aren’t you? I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”

He tearfully recalls, “It was just like a reunion.” When he was called to be the bishop, he began visiting every Sunday. He continued coming until Donna died of congestive heart failure at her home in Blackfoot in October 1991. The memories of those evenings still warm his heart. He and Donna would talk for hours, sharing potato chips and mustard along with joys and sorrows, laughter and tears.

“You thought you were the only one in her life, but she was that way with everyone,” he says. “I came away from that little house feeling as though I had served my Heavenly Father. And yet it was I who had been served. Donna gave and gave and gave until we were filled.”

[photo] Donna Carson in 1955 before polio paralyzed her.

[illustration] Illustrated by Keith Larson

[photo]Donna’s faith, combined with help from loving family and friends, helped her meet her challenges as an invalid of nearly four decades. Here she is surrounded by her sister-in-law Donna Lou, her brother Dene, her mother, and her grandmother, Lorena Janes.

Marilyn Whyte serves in the Young Women presidency in the Pingree (Idaho) Second Ward.

Dorothy Casper is a temple worker in the Idaho Falls Temple and a Sunday School teacher in the Pingree First Ward. Both are members of the Blackfoot Idaho West Stake.