Epilogue: The boy who had nothing and gave everything

Karen Heaton cuddles with her smiling son, Donnie, in 2013, when he was 20. Donnie, who was born with Trisomy 18, loved school, happy songs, the movie Cars and most of all, his mother.
Karen Heaton cuddles with her smiling son, Donnie, in 2013, when he was 20. Donnie, who was born with Trisomy 18, loved school, happy songs, the movie Cars and most of all, his mother.
Published Jul. 5, 2015

He never ate a Happy Meal or ran the bases or spoke a word. His mom says he spent half of his 22 years in the hospital. The most he ever weighed was 55 pounds.

But Donald Robert Heaton's family and friends believe that everyone is born for a reason, and Donnie was a gift. They believe his reason was to teach lessons of love and strength.

"We used to pray for Donnie to be healed," said his aunt, Miriam Wood. "But we realized God created him just the way he is because his life touched so many people."

Donnie was born on Sept. 10, 1992, to Karen and Don Heaton who, for their first 18 years together, had never really entertained the thought of having children. It just never happened, until one year, it did. But from the day of Donnie's birth, he had severe health problems.

"We had this doctor saying that he wasn't going to live, and if he did it wouldn't be more than a year," said Donnie's mother, Karen Heaton.

Donnie was diagnosed with Trisomy 18, a chromosomal disorder that disrupts the development of the fetus in such a devastating way that many Trisomy babies don't survive pregnancy, and half of the full-term babies are stillborn. Of those babies who survive to birth, less than 10 percent reach their first birthday. But Donnie lived for 22 years, nine months and three weeks.

On June 1, Donnie graduated from the Nina Harris Exceptional Student Center. He was awarded the "Papi's Perseverance Award," an annual recognition of students who set an example through accomplishment, positive attitude and individuality. In her nomination of Donnie, his teacher, Christie Vaughan, wrote of his contagious laughter, smile and spirit.

"Here is a boy who cannot walk, talk, eat or drink; who has persevered through so many surgeries and hospitalizations," Vaughan wrote. "He has a purpose on this earth, and that is to bring joy to all those who care for and love him."

Donnie's father died when Donnie was 11, leaving Karen to parent him alone, creating a strong bond between the two. A Tampa Bay Times story in 2013 detailed their relationship.

According to family friend Sarah Knight, Donnie became the man of the house, in his own way, giving love and comfort back to his mother, who battled cancer and a stroke over the last few years.

"After Karen's stroke, she was lying on the floor with him on his pallet, and he rolled over and put his arms around her," Knight said.

Though he didn't speak, he let people know his feelings, which were usually upbeat. "We all questioned how much Donnie could understand," Wood said. "But we knew when he was happy. He was always happy. He would smile and clap his hands with great feeling. If you could see him smile, you'd be ashamed of yourself for complaining about your life."

Karen Heaton believes that, though his mind was that of a 6-year-old, Donnie's faith in God was real, and together they attended Journey Church in St. Petersburg. Pastor Craig Brown said Donnie would respond vocally in church and raise his hands in the air.

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"When I would raise my voice in church and he liked what was happening, Donnie would get excited and clap his hands and speak like he could," Brown said. "Sometimes that was the only amen I got."

Knight recalled the many people who loved Donnie and wanted to make him happy. On Donnie's 18th birthday, a family friend rode his motorcycle over to the house to take him for a ride.

"He said, 'You're 18 now, and you don't have to listen to your mama. I'm going to take you for a ride on my motorcycle,'" Knight said. "He set him up there and got behind him and Donnie was just squealing with glee. He was crazy happy."

Two weeks after clapping for his friends at graduation, after receiving his award, 22-year-old Donnie, who loved school, happy songs, crinkly things, hugs, the movie Cars and most of all, his mother, fell ill and was hospitalized again. His mother tried not to worry too much. They'd been there before.

"I just knew he was going to come back from the hospital," she said. "He had resiliency; he bounced back every time. But he didn't come back this time."

He died on Father's Day. There were more than 200 people at his memorial, so many that the venue was changed from their small church to the Gateway Christian Center. "He touched every life there," Knight said. "The special ones have a hidden holiness. Donnie was closer to Jesus than most of us."

Karen Heaton believes her son is with his dad now. Wiping her tears, she said: "He was my life. He made me so happy. I loved being his mom. I thank God for my friends and relatives, but there's no one to take Donnie's place."