August 8, 2018

A Purple Heart of Devotion

On the day he turned 17, Donald Ener enlisted in the Marines. He shipped overseas to Vietnam where he would go on to serve two tours of duty, fight in the legendary Battle of Khe Sanh, get wounded twice and be awarded a Purple Heart. But that’s only the opening chapter in the amazing story of this devoted husband, community member and father of three.

Upon his return to Texas, he began training as an EMT; becoming just the third licensee in the entire state. At that time, male nurses in Texas were a rarity. It was a career path that was met with more than a little derision and discrimination. But that didn’t faze Don Ener who had made a commitment to do what he could to provide service to his community in rural Wood County, Texas. And it was on one of those community service calls where his life would change forever.

Love at first sighting

Virginia Ann Stevens was still living at home in January 1976, caring for her elderly parents. But one evening, the pain became too much for her mother, who had been battling systemic metastatic cancer for two years. Don Ener, one of the EMTs on duty that night, took the ambulance call and rushed to the Stevens’ residence where he first laid eyes on Virginia.

At the hospital later that night, regardless of where she went, Virginia would notice “this baby-faced boy lurking around every corner, watching her.” When she had finally had enough, she turned and confronted him. “Why do you keep staring at me?” The younger man smiled a sheepish grin and said, “I’m going to marry you.”

And so began their lifelong love affair. Don and Virginia were married on April 29, 1976, in Quitman Texas. A few years later they would move south to Sour Lake where they would settle and raise a family of three: Angie, Don Jr. and Timothy.

But then…

As a trained nurse, Don recognized his wife’s symptoms early on — angry, emotional mood swings disrupting her normally even-keeled disposition. But it’s different when it’s your wife. In 2012, Virginia was finally diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s and slowly, over the next few years, this once-active woman who had relished her time in the garden and the kitchen, stopped doing the things she had loved.

And that’s when Don took on what would become his life’s work: devotion to his wife. As her mobility became compromised he would get her up, help her with bathroom chores, prepare meals, ensure she played with their 26-pound cat and had time with her fidget blanket. Even when a hospice came in to help at the end, Don took the lead, refusing to let them bathe or turn her.

Goodbye, love

But one day in May of this year he told his daughter Angie, “I’m afraid I’m going to hurt her if I try to get her out of bed.” A few days later, Virginia fell into a coma and lingered for 9 long days, “Watching her pass was rough,” says Angie, “you want them to be at peace and not trapped inside that body.”

Don tells us, “The most important thing is to care for your loved one with tender patience. I am a retired nurse but nursing skills are not needed. You will learn to do things in the way that works the best for you and your loved one.”

On April 29, 2018, she and Don had celebrated 42 years of marriage. Less than a month later, Virginia Ann passed away.  Don is still struggling with his emotions. “But he’s about to start volunteering again at the hospital, says daughter Angie. “It gives him purpose. My dad will always step up and do what needs to be done. That’s just who he is.”

Virginia and Donald Ener on their 40th Wedding Anniversary

Every day, family caregivers do a herculean job in meeting the needs of their loved ones. We offer our gratitude and a little bit of recognition for all that they do. If you are a caregiver or know someone who is, please reach out at caring@r2endalz.org so we may feature your story here and on our Facebook page.



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