Heather Webb Donahue’s voice trembles with a soft vibrato when she speaks. Sometimes her hands shake, ever so slightly, as well. The source of the seismic shifts is a vagus nerve stimulator (VNS) implanted in her chest. The technology has proven a literal life saver for her as she has intractable epilepsy that no medication has managed.
Diagnosed at age 12, Donahue always has a designated “keeper of the magnet” wherever she is. In case of a seizure, grand mal or not, her magnet is swiped over the stimulator to trigger an electronic impulse to stop it.
“It’s like scanning your groceries at the store,” Donahue said with an infectious laugh. “I’ve got my own bar code reader. It’s just, wherever I am, someone has to be in charge of it. Just in case. The VNS is basically a pace-maker for my brain and a miracle.”
Donahue, 42, is a north Knoxville native and graduate of Halls High School. She currently lives in Lincoln Park and is the Purple Day Ambassador for Tennessee with the Anita Kauffman Foundation. The organization along with Knoxville Epilepsy Warriors promotes education about the condition, and November is Epilepsy Awareness Month (purple is the signature color). Donahue is busy organizing the third annual Walk and Chili event fundraiser. It will be held Saturday, Nov. 7, from noon until 3 p.m. at Fountain City Park.
“We’re going to have a DJ, we’re going to have chili provided by Petros, we’ll have pumpkin painting, face painting and cornhole set up,” Donahue said. “We’ll be outside, so there’s plenty of room for distancing, for fellowship and a nice walk in the park.”
The event is free and open to the public. Donahue said one of the goals this year is to raise money to set up a transportation network for area residents with severe cases of epilepsy that prevent them driving.
“I am unable to drive. I am unable to work,” she said. “In fact, when I was younger, I did try to work. But I’ve been fired for having seizures on the job. The truth is, it is debilitating and can be deadly. If you have it, you are likely to have a shorter life span. We need help with this, but we’re also not trying to be anybody’s burden.”
Despite such dire possibilities everything in Donahue’s aspect speaks to the heart of an eternal optimist. She laughs when pointing out the zig zagging nature of her conversation, saying “seriously, you can’t multitask with this brain.” Her house has cameras situated throughout so her husband, Kent, can check on her when he is away. She leans on her faith, her family and close friends. She welcomes them to her backyard “She-Shed” which she calls Heather’s Oasis.
“It’s my place where anyone who needs to just chill can come here and do just that,” she said. She appreciates every minute she gets to enjoy outdoors saying that nature is her favorite medicine.
“I hope for the future. I have dreams for the future,” she said. “I have no choice but to live in the moment.” And with that she unveils her favorite quote from The Shawshank Redemption that has kept her going: “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
Connect with Knoxville Epilepsy Warriors on Facebook here.
Beth Kinnane is a freelance writer and thoroughbred bloodstock agent.