Run Donna Run

When Donna Campisi’s worried mum took her sick seven-year-old to see the doctor for the second time in a week, she was told it was tonsillitis and sent home with antibiotics. But later that night, Donna’s parents awoke to find their daughter convulsing in bed.

They rushed her to Mildura Base Hospital, but the doctors were dumbfounded, so she was airlifted to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. The specialists there determined that Donna had suffered a stroke, but they had no idea what had caused it and she soon became known as the “Mystery Girl”.

Donna was diagnosed with several conditions: hemiplegia (inability to move the right side of her body because of damage to the left side of her brain, which meant she couldn’t walk), endocarditis (inflammation of the heart that caused a hole in her heart and a heart murmur), aphasia (loss of speech), meningitis (inflammation of the brain membranes that protect the spinal cord), staphylococcal septicaemia (blood poisoning) and splenomegaly (enlargement of the spleen).

“I was in hospital for a couple of months and things started to slowly improve,” says Donna. “My speech just miraculously came back one day. I was playing Chinese checkers with my mum and the checkers fell on the floor. She was picking them up and I could see she’d missed one, so I said, ‘Mum, there’s a green one over there.’ She couldn’t believe it – those were the first words I said. Even the doctors were surprised.”

When Donna was finally allowed to go home, she still wasn’t able to walk. But thanks to a rigorous regimen of physiotherapy, occupational therapy and massage, she was able to get around with a walking stick within a year and on her own shortly after that.

Although her condition continued to improve steadily, Donna had a few more setbacks along the way. When she was 10, she had a seizure at school and found out she’d developed epilepsy. Then, at 14, Donna was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. “That was another visit to the Royal Children’s Hospital,” says Donna. “I’d been very sick for a few weeks and I was going downhill – I got to a very serious state. But they were brilliant in getting me back on track.”

Since then, Donna’s health conditions have been well managed with medication and she’s felt grateful to be alive every single day. It wasn’t until last year when someone asked her what she hadn’t been able to do since the stroke that she stopped to reflect on what she might be missing out on.

“I’ve always focused on the things I can do, so I really had to think about that,” she says. “But then I realised I hadn’t been confident running, so one evening I decided to give it a go. I started with 20 steps, then 25, then 30, and then I had to stop. That’s when I thought, ‘I need help, but I want to try this some more.’ I was excited.”

When she got home, Donna searched for a business card she’d been given a few weeks earlier. “I’d met Chris from Brewster’s Running (brewstersrunning.com) at a seminar, and he’d told me he and Shaun Brewster taught people how to run,” she says. “So I sent them an email to see if they’d be willing to help me out.”

Shaun called Donna the very next day. “I was just thinking of doing a fun run, like 5K, but Shaun suggested I do a marathon,” says Donna. “I said, ‘Shaun, you haven’t even seen me walk’.”

And so the Run Donna Run project was born. Not only is Donna learning to run, but she’s aiming to raise $50,000 for the Royal Children’s Hospital by the time she crosses the finish line of the Melbourne Marathon in October.

“I’m so excited, but there have been some challenges along the way,” says Donna. “I have a difference in leg length so I wear a heel lift, and I also need a leg brace to lift my toes off the ground. My knee also turns in and I have hardly any calf muscle on the right leg compared to the left leg. I’ve come across different injuries because I haven’t used certain muscles in 34 years.”

Despite all these hurdles, Shaun has no doubt she’ll reach her goal. “Donna’s progress has been nothing short of amazing,” he says. “There have been several setbacks during her training, but that’s been the story of her life. She gets knocked down, puts on one of her infectious smiles and comes back harder than before.”

Whenever she faces difficult moments in her training, Donna remembers her physiotherapist Julie’s life-changing words when she was learning to crawl again after her stroke. “I kept crying and telling her, ‘I can’t,’” says Donna. “And Julie just said to me, ‘There’s no such thing as can’t.’ It was a big moment. I always use that mantra whenever something’s difficult, and that’s how I think of running now. There’s no such thing as can’t.”

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