At 7 a.m. each weekday, Donna Thornton reports for her job at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Her husband Ricardo drives her to the sprawling government complex, and when she finishes her shift at 3:30 p.m., Donna takes off the neon green vest she wears on the job and catches public transportation back to her home in Washington, D.C.
“Donna does light duty housekeeping. She sweeps and mops floors, cleans, dusts,” said George Donovan, Walter Reed’s hospital housekeeping officer. “Donna is one of the friendliest of the group on the housekeeping team. And she has a great sense of humor.”
For 22 years, Donna has worked in housekeeping at Walter Reed — both at the original facility and for the last two years at the medical center’s new home some miles away. Since Donna doesn’t use a computer, her coworkers punch her in each day. They also help her update a paper copy of her schedule, which is synced with the office’s computerized calendar.
For lunch, she often treks several buildings away to a McDonalds. At other times, she can be found at her desk — a cubicle where she has hung pictures of flowers.
She’s highly regarded by Donovan and her colleagues, and she likes her job. But she’s starting to think about the next step: retirement.
“I’m 60, and they say to retire when you’re 62, so I’m going to retire in two years,” Donna explained.
She will have the same adjustments that any long-time workers face — with one difference. Retirement may be the first life step that Donna takes without having to put up a fight.
Life’s little roadmap
Donna was an infant when she entered foster care and eight or nine when a foster family sent her to live at Forest Haven, an institution eventually closed by a federal court order after a multiyear lawsuit over poor patient care and abuse.
It was a friendship and romance with Ricardo, also a Forest Haven resident, that proved just how hard Donna — then Donna Selby — would fight for her dreams: to work, to live independently, to marry and to have a family.
She landed a job at McDonalds then worked at a DC hospital, before she was hired at Walter Reed.
When Forest Haven closed, Donna successfully made the transition to an apartment. Ricardo visited her every Saturday, their romance blossomed, and they started making plans to marry.
“[Social services] officials told Ricardo and Donna that it was illegal for people with disabilities to marry in the District of Columbia,” said Mary Lou Meccariello, executive director of The Arc of the District of Columbia. “Of course, that wasn’t true.”
The Arc of the District of Columbia, which had provided Donna with vocational training years earlier, joined those advocating on the couple’s behalf. Today Donna sits on the Arc’s board of directors, where Meccariello says she brings “an honesty and a reality check” to its discussions.
Donna and Ricardo Thornton celebrated 29 years of marriage at the end of June. When the couple pulls out their wedding album, one photo shows Donna, a diminutive blonde in a beautiful white dress banked by an entourage of bridesmaids. In another, a beaming Ricardo towers over his much shorter bride.
Local media reported the wedding.
Then came a pregnancy. Again, their joy was short-lived.
“People weren’t so happy with us having a child,” Ricardo said. “We lived in an institution all our lives, and we had to show them that we could be good parents.”
Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes covered the 1996 birth of Ricardo Jr., dubbed Ricky by his parents. Donna recalled how doctors told her they had to schedule an early Caesarean section, and she couldn’t locate Ricardo. She tracked him down at a Special Olympics basketball game, and over the phone, told him in no uncertain terms to get to the hospital.
Ricardo said they both were worried about parenthood, their anxieties rooted in the absence of their own parents.
“Donna’s big question was ‘Will my baby like me?’” he said.
Today the answer is obvious. Ricky and his family frequently swing by his parents’ house for backyard barbecues. On Sundays, the family goes together to Lee Memorial Baptist Church, where Donna is an usher and training to be a trustee.
The Thorntons’ tenacity in refusing to acquiesce to medical personnel and even well-meaning friends who worried whether they should have children was also captured in the 2003 made-for-TV movie, “Profoundly Normal,” starring Kirstie Alley as Donna and Delroy Lindo as Ricardo. Ricky said his parents’ struggles provided life lessons that made him a better father to his three children, nine-year-old Daniel, 13-month-old
Lia and newborn Rita Rae.
“My oldest son has autism. His mother and I are his biggest advocates,” he said. “Some of what we’re going through, people’s responses in general, we were geared up for because of what my parents went through.”
Ricky is gung ho about his mother’s retirement. “It’s going to be excellent. This will be her time to relax, although I know she’ll keep herself busy.”
Ricardo, well known in Special Olympics circles and for his eloquent outreach on behalf of people with disabilities, works as an aide at a public library in the District of Columbia and still has a few more years before he’s eligible for retirement.
The couple knows it will have to manage its money differently once Donna leaves her job. They’re already talking about the shift to a monthly check rather than the every-two-weeks paycheck Donna now receives. Their case worker, Bobby Gott, predicted that Donna will be like every other retiree he knows.
“She’ll figure it out as she goes along,” he said.
Donna talks about spending more time with her grandchildren, sleeping late in the mornings, writing a memoir with her son’s help and spending a week alone with Ricardo in Atlantic City, the city where they honeymooned. She also wants to step up her activity with the Arc, do more on-stage work with D.C.-based community theater group People Unlimited and perhaps expand her public speaking on disability issues.
But plans for an exotic vacation—or two—keep sneaking back to the top of her wish list. Donovan, her supervisor, said a vacation is long overdue.
“Donna rarely takes a sick day—and that’s only when she’s really sick—and she doesn’t take her vacation time.”
He said she’s more likely to generously donate that time to co-workers who need it.
“I want to go to Hawaii,” Donna said. “But if not there, somewhere else like Las Vegas. Somewhere that looks exciting.”
Mary Dempsey is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.