NEW CARLISLE, Ohio – When Dec. 29 comes around New Carlisle donor Donna Pursifull celebrates. It’s not her birthday; it’s not an early New Year’s party. She gives thanks for the doctors and blood donors who helped her cheat death 40 years ago, then welcomes another bonus year of life.
Donna grew up in Bardstown, Kentucky where she first donated blood at her high school. She continued donating in the fall of her freshman year at Murray State University. She came home for Christmas feeling on top of the world. “I was in the best shape I’d ever been,” she recalled. “It was just not my time to die.”
Christmas was over and Donna and her friends had time on their hands. When the first snow of the season fell, they knew exactly what to do: go sledding at the Old Kentucky Home Golf Course. “Everybody went there,” she said. “Later people would ask me if I was the girl that closed down the hill.”
What happened on Dec. 29, 1976 changed the way people looked at a familiar winter playground, and the way Donna looked at life. But it began with just a group of friends sliding down the fresh snow on a makeshift sled.
“It was a big inner tube from a truck,” she recalled. “We were flying. I don’t know if someone caught a foot, but we hit a ditch and it caught me right in the middle. It just split my entire liver in half.”
She remembers the drama that followed at the hospital. “They thought it was my spleen,” she said. “They closed me and told my family I was going to die. They wanted to be sure I had last rights because they were sure I was going to die. They told my parents I wouldn’t make it.”
The surgical staff focused on her damaged liver, with multiple blood transfusions helping buy time. “They told me I got 124 units between surgery and recovery,” she said. “The surgeon told me there is no medical reason I should be alive. He said my liver looked like it had been dropped off a three-story building.”
But she had survived to welcome a new year. “My boyfriend at the time came in on New Year’s Eve and watched the clock turn midnight with me there with the respirator on,” she said.
She missed the next semester at Murray State and spent two months recovering at home. But she returned to school with a new outlook and tremendous gratitude.
“I thought it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said. “In Bardstown people donated in my name to replenish the blood supply. I still have a list of all the names. I had a bag full of cards and messages like ‘Don’t give up.’ I go home and see them, or on Facebook, and I remember.”
“My doctor looked at me and said there’s no reason for you being alive now. It just wasn’t my time. I didn’t know how close I was.”
Her loved ones knew how close they came to losing her. Donna still remembers a conversation with her grandmother. “My grandma came in the house with a new dress on. When I commented on the dress, she had to leave the house. She had bought the dress for my funeral.”
Donna says, “I was good Catholic school girl in high school, never broke rules. I went back to school and broke a few rules! I still got good grades. You realize life is short. I’d go to the quarry and jump off a cliff. I wouldn’t have done that before, take a few risks and say ‘what the heck.’”
After graduating she went to work for Murray State as a registrar, and donated blood when she could. “It made me much more dedicated,” she said. “I come here for whoever needs it, being glad I can repay. I make it a priority.”
She moved to Ohio in 2007 to work at Miami University and became a Community Blood Center donor (she has 35 lifetime donations with CBC). Her husband Donald is a 35-year Air Force veteran now working at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. They have six children between them, including a daughter who is a senior at Tecumseh High School.
“It’s an obligation,” she said of blood donations. “Before (the accident) giving to the community was part of it. But you don’t take it seriously until you say I would not be here without it, just no question.”
Dec. 29, 1976 will never leave her. She’s replayed it so many times over the year. “We debated whose turn it was to be on the bottom of the inner tube,” she said. “I’m sure I hit from the front. I still wake up from a dream of hitting that ditch, remembering how cold it was. I still have scars.”
But she does wake up from that dream, and she is no longer cold. That is because of good doctors, good fortune, and dedicated blood donors.
“I say that I am officially 40 years old,” Donna said, cheating not only death, but Father Time. “That’s how long it’s been since it happened. Every day is a gift.”