Donna Anderson, 53, lifelong athlete despite two heart transplants

October 11, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Donna Lynn Anderson, a former high school and college athlete whose survival of two heart transplant operations allowed her to continue playing sports and was an inspiration to others, died of renal failure Sunday at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She was 53 and lived in Ruxton.

Miss Anderson was born and reared on Ruxway Road in Ruxton. She was a 1968 graduate of Towson High School, where she played varsity lacrosse, field hockey and basketball. A physical education major, she attended Catonsville Community College for two years, continuing to play lacrosse, field hockey and basketball.

She earned a bachelor's degree in 1973 in physical education from what was then Towson State College. While at Towson, she played varsity lacrosse on the women's team.

In 1982, she moved to Detroit and worked in the security department of General Motors Corp.

Miss Anderson was 32 when she began experiencing health problems. After a visit to the Mayo Clinic, physicians thought she was suffering from pneumonia. They later changed their diagnosis to viral myocarditis, a heart disease.

"They didn't think I had heart problems because I was too young," she told the Towson Times in an interview last year.

Within 10 hours of being placed on the donor list in 1987, she received her first heart transplant at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The following year, she participated in her first U.S. Transplant Games at the University of California, Los Angeles. Representing Team Maryland, she won a gold medal in the softball throw and competed in the bicycle race.

"Donna Anderson was a champion. She was a champion on the field and in being a role model for perseverance in staying alive as long as possible under extremely difficult circumstances," said Dr. Mary E. Blann, her former professor of physical education at Towson University, who retired in 2001.

Miss Anderson, who retired on a medical disability after her first transplant surgery, surpassed the five-year average survival rate for transplant recipients at the time.

She attended the 1998, 2000 and 2002 U.S. Transplant Games, winning the bronze in the softball throw and shot put.

Inspired by others who had survived transplant surgery, she looked forward to attending the annual event, which brought together about 2,000 athletes and 8,000 spectators.

"It means a lot. When you meet people who have been transplanted, it's like a big support group. And it's a great way to get the word out to people that we donors," she told the Towson Times.

During a routine transplant checkup in 1999, doctors discovered blocked arteries and ordered a second transplant.

A year later, when she turned 50, she participated in the Maryland Senior Olympics, winning a gold medal for the softball and javelin throws.

Miss Anderson carefully monitored what she cooked and ate. She made sure that she remained healthy through regular daily exercise.

"As a student in the fitness class at Towson University, Donna was an exceptional role model for the youngest students, who did not know she was a heart transplant recipient. She would run rings around them in all the activities, as she was so dedicated to enhancing her health and fitness," Dr. Blann said.

"The students were in disbelief upon learning that she had a heart transplant. Donna never made a big deal of her situation. She even played it down. But she continually encouraged everyone to sign up to become an organ donor."

Miss Anderson was an active member of a transplant support group at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She also volunteered at the Maryland Med Bank, a foundation that helps those without adequate prescription coverage obtain medicines.

"This was a real passion for her. She fought for people who couldn't afford prescription medications," said Joyce C. Rhodes, a college friend.

"The essence of Donna and what I admired was when she became ill, she took her health care into her own hands," said Adrienne R. True, a longtime friend.

"Donna really was a celebration of life. She was a stubborn fighter. Through all her illnesses, she never complained. She remained focused and moved forward like someone preparing for a game, to play another quarter. She did whatever she needed to do, to keep her heart going," Ms. Rhodes said.

Miss Anderson was an avid reader and liked visiting the shore.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. today at Ruck Towson Funeral Home, 1050 York Road.

Miss Anderson is survived by her mother, Dorys Anderson of Ruxton; a brother, Douglas Anderson of Westminster; a nephew; and a niece.

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