She is an anachronism at the Lake Woods Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Muskegon, a place of silver hair and complexions carved deep like canyons by age.
Karen's 55-year-old eyes stare out at the others. There is a sense she doesn't belong here — not now, if ever. But she lives here. And moves about as they do — in a wheelchair pushed by others.
Karen was always the one doing the pushing, the one doing the giving — to charities, friends, family members and strangers — whether it was time, money or items of need.
Now, she's the one in need.
Karen wants to go home, but it will take the talents and generosity of carpenters, plumbers and contractors to make that happen. Nursing home costs wiped out her savings.
Last year, the Fruitport woman was living a relatively normal life — working as a supervisor at Shape Corp. in Grand Haven, caring for her children and trying to make a difference in the world around her. Today, she is partially paralyzed.
The voice that reassuringly comforted so many through their sorrows is a faint and halted whisper. The arm that reached out to hug, and to share gifts with those less fortunate, is limp at her side. The legs that so often helped carry the weight of others' burdens are weak and atrophied.
It's as if an alter-ego inhabits her wheelchair — a stranger, a helpless person, someone who is the polar opposite of what she once was.
“I feel alone,” Karen whispered last week with stumbling breath. “But I feel blessed.”
Gail Bodine, a close friend and former co-worker at Shape, laid her arm on Karen's shoulder.
“That's just the kind of person she is,” said Bodine through tears.
Karen has always been a giver, according to Bodine, family members and co-workers. The needs of others always trumped her own.
“If she's got it and you need it, you've got it and she doesn't,” said Sandy Hanna, Karen's former supervisor at Shape. “Karen is a very giving person. She's 'old school.'”
Karen worked long hours a Shape. She gave her love to four adopted children and three birth children. She gave up living in her own home to move into her parents' attic so she could care for her father with Alzheimer's, and she was prepared to give a kidney to her cousin.
That's when life changed. During the rigorous testing for the kidney donation process, doctors discovered that Karen suffered from hepatitis C, likely from a blood transfusion she received in the 1980s.
Karen underwent a strenuous treatment with hopes of recovering so she could still donate the kidney. But the treatment ravaged her body and the chemicals sucked life from the one who once exuded life.
Her appetite waned and her strength drained. Last spring, she collapsed and slipped into a coma.
After stints at Hackley Hospital in Muskegon and a transfer to Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, doctors remained stumped.
She awoke from her coma in June after being moved into the Lake Woods nursing home. She was paralyzed.
“When she woke up, she was afraid she was late for work,” said Bodine, laughing.
To read more of this story, see today’s print or e-edition of the Grand Haven Tribune.
HOW TO HELP:
— If you would like to donate time or building services, call Gail Bodine at 231-215-0442 or e-mail email@example.com.
— Cards may be sent to 15752 Charles Court, Grand Haven, MI 49417.