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Meet Donna O’Donnell Figurski

Today we’d like to introduce you to Donna O’Donnell Figurski.

Donna, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
My story began when I was born on December 7th many, many years ago. It took a life-altering turn when I was sixteen years old and a boy asked me to dance. I knew in an instant that I was going to marry him. And… I did four years later! This August, David and I will celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. We had a good life together raising our two children. We each loved our careers.

I was a teacher at my local elementary school in Dumont, New Jersey. I taught 1st or 3rd graders for more than thirty years. David was a professor of microbiology at Columbia University in New York City for thirty-five years. Both children eventually graduated from college, and David and I were empty nesters. Life was good–until it wasn’t.

On January 13th, 2005, at 7:05 a.m., our lives turned upside down. David woke early, as usual, to do his morning exercises. His routine consisted of his version of tai chi and twelve chin-ups, but that morning David did thirteen. That extra chin-up changed our lives forever. David had a subarachnoid hemorrhage–a brain bleed.

The neurosurgeon gave him a slim percentage of survival. But, survive he did! And, he survived two more brain surgeries in the following two weeks. The second brain surgery was to remove an aneurysm, and the third brain surgery was to correct an AVM (arteriovenous malformation), which is a tangle of blood vessels.

The neurosurgeon likened the aneurysm and the AVM to time bombs. For each surgery, David’s chance of survival was less than likely. But, I took care of that. Although he was in a coma, before the orderlies wheeled him into the operating room, I whispered a few select words to him, “I’ll never forgive you, if you don’t come back to me.” In each case, he returned–more beat up with each successive surgery, but he returned. I like to think that my “guilt trip” worked. We just celebrated our 14th year of “extra life.” Sometimes we call it David’s “re–birthday.” And yes, I do get him a present.

Having a brain injury is not for the faint of heart–not for the survivor and not for the caregiver. It’s a journey with a very steep learning curve. As a child, I used to have a recurring nightmare of me having to push a car up a steep hill by myself. Even with help, that would be an impossible task, yet here I was facing life with David’s brain injury. It was a challenge as daunting as the car and the hill. I felt as though I were thrust into the deep end of the pool with no life preserver and I couldn’t swim.

For my survival and David’s well-being, I had to swim, or at least tread water. I took each challenge one day at a time. (Frankly, it was more like one hour, or one minute, at a time.) I had to figure out this new terrain. I reinvented myself to become outspoken and strong because I needed to step into the shoes of advocate for David’s medical needs–essentially, for his life. That was not an easy task for me.

All through our marriage, we always made decisions together, even the small ones like what movie to see or the restaurant at which to have dinner. But, now I was making the big decisions–all by myself. I signed on the dotted lines for three surgeries. I discussed David’s post-operative care with his neurosurgeons. I OK’d any number of procedures on David–both invasive and non-invasive.

I decided that he was to be transferred to another hospital, a superior one in another state, upon the encouragement of several physicians, including neurosurgeons. I am convinced that this decision saved David’s life. Daily, I alone was making life-or-death decisions, as David was in a coma. I felt like I was lost in a foreign world. Every minute I was scared. I was petrified that I would make a wrong decision–a decision that would derail David’s life even more–and my life too. But, I wasn’t given a choice.

As David’s wife, I was responsible for his health and welfare. And, so I did what I had to do. I guess I made the right decisions because David has lived more than fourteen years beyond his brain bleed. The first few years were incredibly difficult for both David and me. David required so much care. Although David’s cognitive brain was spared, his injury affected his motor skills.

Probably the most challenging for David are his severe balance issues. His walk is very robot-like. His every step is slow and calculated. His swallow disorder, his frequent urinary urges, his ataxic right hand, his weak right leg, and his compromised vision cause him daily challenges, making him compensate for each action, which before his brain injury, was accomplished without a second thought.

People often tell me how lucky we are that David survived his brain injury, and I always think, Luck would be never to have had a brain injury at all! But, I do understand what they mean, and I graciously agree. David and I are fortunate that his neurosurgeons were able to save his life–three times. They were able to give David back to me, and we are able to have a life together. It’s a different life. It’s not one that we actually recognize, but, though tons of lemons were thrown at us, we’ve made jugs and jugs of lemonade. It’s our new normal.

When David’s brain injury tore apart the fabric of our lives that January 13th fourteen years ago, we had to pick up the pieces and patch them back together. Some pieces were lost in his brain blowout and will never be found. Others may be hiding and will eventually appear. David works diligently to piece his life-puzzle together again, and I work hard applying the glue.

Before David’s injury, I’d never heard of a “traumatic brain injury,” and I felt lost and completely alone. In the NICU (neuro-intensive care unit), I vowed to write a pamphlet to explain what a brain injury is, much like the pamphlets on diabetes, cancer, or Alzheimer’s, which are often available in doctors’ offices to help folks who will someday be thrust onto those unwelcome paths.

Though I’ve never completed that promise, I did write a book (Prisoners without Bars: A Caregiver’s Tale) that chronicles David’s and my journey in the disability lane. I started the book in 2006, a year after David’s injury. I worked on the manuscript in the wee hours before heading out to my teaching job. I wrote on weekends and every time I could eke out some minutes.

I wrote because I needed to help new survivors and caregivers who would undoubtedly walk their own versions of this path. I wrote because it was cathartic and because I did not want to forget. Writing allowed me to save the memories of what David and I had survived by documenting his story. And, I wrote because I could.

While David was in the hospitals, many doctors, nurses, social workers, and therapists shared information with me about David’s recovery. Their words jammed together to become a jumbled mess. I knew I would remember each discussion for a short time, but the tidbits of information that were shared with me would eventually be lost forever if I didn’t document them right away.

So, I digitally recorded the information that David’s medical personnel shared with me, again, in the wee hours of the night, I’d type daily emails to family and friends using the digitally recorded information. These updates and digital recordings became the fodder for my book. I never knew if Prisoners would ever be read by others. The publishing field is a tough nut to crack. I know!

For about twenty years before David’s injury in 2005, I wrote manuscripts for children’s picture books, and I have the proof in the form of rejection letters–lots of them. Those letters usually began “Dear Author …” and ended with “The Editor.” I also received many encouraging letters stating that my characters, my story, and my humor were enticing, but the letters always brought sadness and frustration too. They never came with a contract, but I collected a lot of carrots, and those carrots made me write more.

Some examples are: “You write really well, but …,” “Children will love your characters, but …,” and “You really understand what kids like, but …” I could go on and on, but you can find a lot more on my blog (Donna O’Donnell Figurski’s Blog at

So, when I completed my adult-book manuscript in 2013, I started the search for a publisher or agent. I sent the requested fifty pages to eight agents. Within two hours, an agent replied and requested more. Soon she asked for the entire manuscript. She said it was a “wild ride.” For about a month, we talked and emailed about the project, and then she declined representing the manuscript, citing time restraints. I was devastated!

A few years later, a brain-injury niche company was interested and asked for the entire manuscript. They loved it, and we each signed the contract. But a few days later, they reneged on the contract, stating they wanted a different kind of book and asking me to write it. I agreed. But, Prisoners was an orphan again. Again, devastation and grief set in.

But, I would not give up. About six months later, I found a wonderful home for Prisoners, and it was published on November 1, 2018. I’m now working on my next book about my innovative/creative 1st and 3rd-grade classrooms.

The first agent was right. David and I are definitely on a “wild ride.” Now, more than fourteen years since David’s traumatic brain injury, we trod along our new path and hung on as tightly as we can as we live our new normal together… happily-ever-after!


  • “Prisoners without Bars: A Caregiver’s Tale” print/paperback copy $16.95
  • “Prisoners without Bars: A Caregiver’s Tale” eBook copy $6.95 Limited Time Sale $1.99

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  1. Patti Jugenheimer

    May 23, 2019 at 9:28 am

    Donna and David,
    Congratulations on your article and more importantly on your fifty year love story. You two are both inspirations for all of us. May your story continue to bring hope to others. Love, Patti & John Jugenheimer

    • Patti Jugenheimer

      May 23, 2019 at 9:29 am

      Donna and David,
      Congratulations on your article and more importantly on your fifty year love story. You two are both inspirations for all of us. May your story continue to bring hope to others.
      Patti & John Jugenheimer

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