Maitland resident curing cancer one step at a time

Jo Ann Donaldson went from wheelchair-bound to walking her first half-marathon earlier this month.

Jo Ann Donaldson went from wheelchair-bound to walking her first half-marathon earlier this month.

Brittni Larson

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Jo Ann Donaldson struggled toward the finish line, one ankle weakening under the pressure of the constant stomp, but keeping the pace of her brisk walk despite the 35 mile-per-hour winds slamming against her face, pushing her back.

But the winds were also a reminder of why she had to keep going. Ribbons attached to the back of her shirt fluttered in the air behind her, covered in the names of the people she was walking for. Battling the wind, she pulled them along with her.

“I think that’s what kept her moving forward, to know that she was specifically running for all of these people who are tied physically to her shirt,” said her daughter Andrea Donaldson. “It made it not an option to stop.”

“It took everything in me to finish, but I did,” Jo Ann said.

That day, on Dec. 1, Jo Ann completed her first half marathon. And she did it to help find a cure for blood cancer patients through the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Jo Ann, a Maitland resident who is the director of community and corporate development for LLS, helped to organize the organization’s participation in Space Coast Half Marathon, which raised more than $85,000 to help fund research to find a cure for cancer. Jo Ann and her daughter raised more than $3,000 as a part of Team In Training, a race training group with mentors for running and raising money, one of LLS’s four largest fundraising campaigns.

Jo Ann does it because she’s passionate about helping others find hope when it seems impossible, because she’s been there.

“I know what it’s like to not know what’s going to happen next,” she said. “I know the level of helplessness and hopelessness you can feel, mine doesn’t have anything to do with cancer, but helplessness and hopelessness doesn’t discriminate, it comes in many forms.”

On Thanksgiving weekend 21 years ago, Jo Ann was driving to a friend’s house at night on icy roads. A deer crossed in front of her and she swerved to miss it, sending her car flying into a ravine where she hit a tree. She nearly died. She broke her pelvis in five places, crushed her ankle, and split her head open and bit through her tongue.

“[Doctors] said, ‘You may never walk normally again,’” Jo Ann said. “I left the hospital in a wheelchair.”

But she proved them wrong pretty quickly. She started walking with a walker, and took speech therapy, spending months training her tongue to speak correctly again. No one was going to tell her she couldn’t take care of her children, that she wouldn’t be able to walk with them or help teach her two babies, at the time 1 and 2-years-old, how to talk.

“She was really on her own now with two children who were under the age of 5, and she had to make it, she didn’t have a choice whether to make it or not, and I think that’s what really made her into the person that she is today,” Andrea said.

And she didn’t stop at relearning how to walk; in just six months she was racing.

“In February I went roller skating, and in March I went hiking in Gatlinburg, and in April I did a 5K,” Jo Ann said. “The doctors were astounded by my recovery, and it was sheer willpower.”

During that time she was also attending school full-time and was going through a divorce, all on her own. She graduated with honors from the University of Louisville. But she’s always been like that.

“Some people have a drive, some people have a need … and whatever she gets involved in she goes at it with whatever she has,” her father Sidney Glaser said.

Now her passion and determination is focused on LLS. The day of her race when her ankle, still weak from her accident long ago, began to wobble beneath her and her knees began to buckle in exhaustion, it was hard to keep pushing. Her ankle hurt for a couple days afterwards, and she wasn’t sure if she could do another half marathon. But three days later, no one could keep her from another race to benefit LLS. She’ll be running in D.C. in the spring, and who knows what will be after that.

“The real finish line is when there’s a cure,” Jo Ann said. “I haven’t finished; it’s just the first step.”