Paralyzed Plano man survived 54 years, inspired others

Published: January 30, 2009  |  Source: dallasnews.com
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The doctors didn’t expect Don Harrington to survive the 1954 car accident that left him a quadriplegic.

Then the medical wisdom of the day said the 19-year-old college sophomore from Plano might live at most another five years.

But those doctors didn’t know Donna Harrington, who cared for her son and defied the odds for the next 50 years. She continued in her labor of love well past her 100th birthday.

Don, in turn, inspired people with his positive attitude despite spending 54 years bedridden and almost completely paralyzed.

Don Harrington died Jan. 22 at Medical Center of Plano of health complications common to bedridden people. He was 73. He had been hospitalized since Jan. 4.

Since his death, family and friends have come to recognize the impact of the man who essentially had his life suspended as a 19-year-old college student, yet set such an example. More than 200 people attended his memorial on Monday in Plano, his family said.

Robert “Rob” Harrington Jr. of Plano said his sense of amazement at what his brother accomplished has grown since his death.

“I had no idea how much influence he exerted on other people,” he said.

Don Harrington inspired people by maintaining his positive attitude, said his niece, Robin Brady of Meridian, Texas. Her uncle never gave up hope that he would walk again, yet he lived with a tranquil acceptance.

“There’s that hope for getting up, but that contentment for where he was,” Brady said. “He didn’t pity himself.”

TV remote

Don Harrington was a quadriplegic whose motion was limited to arm movements sufficient to operate a television remote control. He did not have the use of his hands.

He watched television using special glasses that allowed him to see the screen even while he was flat on his back. He could talk on the phone if someone held the receiver to his ear.

His bed could be rotated so he could rest face up, or face down, where he could read through a cutout.

Visitors often were shocked by the frailty of the man under the sheets, but inspired by his positive attitude during perspective-changing visits.

“There are a lot of folks who feel like they have problems,” Rob Harrington said. “After meeting him, they decided they didn’t have that many problems.”

Texas Tech athlete

Don Harrington was born in Plano, the fourth generation of a pioneering Collin County family.

He graduated from Plano High School in 1953 and was studying agriculture at what is now Texas Tech University, where he was a walk-on football player.

“He was a good athlete,” Rob Harrington said. “My brother was a competitive person.”

Don Harrington was paralyzed on Dec. 17, 1954, when the 1955 Ford Thunderbird in which he was a passenger rolled on a country road as he returned to Lubbock from New Mexico.

“They were going real fast because they were young,” Brady said.

Don Harrington lived with his decisions of that day for the rest of his life.

“My brother suffered a lot over the years in thinking about what he did and how he did it,” Rob Harrington said. “He had a lot of remorse, because he did things he knew he shouldn’t have done … like all of us.”

Mother’s care

His family rallied to help. Rob Harrington, who was teaching school in Abilene in 1954, returned to Plano and worked on the family farm to help pay medical bills.

The farm was sold in 1974, and Robert Harrington Sr. died two years later. But Don’s mother, Donna Harrington, continued to care for her son round-the-clock.

“She was in her 90s before they got any help, even during the day,” Brady said.

“Nobody spent the night until 2000,” Brady said. Donna Harrington, who cared for her son until she was 101, was 105 years old when she died in 2006.

She was ‘an angel’

Dr. Michelle Mendez, an assistant professor of rehabilitation at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, called Donna Harrington “an angel.”

It is rare for someone who sustained a severe spinal cord injury in the 1950s to live a full life, she said.

Bed sores can lead to life-threatening infections, and the patient’s inability to clear his or her lungs can result in respiratory problems.

“These patients require a lot of care because of their immobility,” Mendez said, adding that people with spinal cord injuries today can live many, many years. “It’s just a matter of willpower and family support.”

Don Harrington was able to build his legacy on his adversity, Brady said.

“It’s often in somebody’s struggles that they really show the kind of character we admire,” she said. “It’s not when they are on top of the world , ”

Staff writer Scott Farwell contributed to this report.
By JOE SIMNACHER / The Dallas Morning News