Leigh: A Sister’s Tribute

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As we wrap up Brain Tumor Awareness Month, we wanted to share this beautiful tribute by a sister of a childhood brain tumor survivor who recently passed away this past January. When I read this, I was so moved by Susan Keller’s words about Leigh Ann Doninger. Susan shared her eulogy to her sister along with an in memoriam donation to RAWF. These words felt fitting for our last Inspiration Friday of Brain Tumor Awareness Month. Leigh sounded like a true inspiration for many.

Leigh Ann Doninger
August 27, 1968 – January 29, 2020
By: Susan Keller

The last time I visited with Leigh, she rested and I decided to play some of her favorite music which included Peter, Paul, and Mary. As I sang along to Puff the Magic Dragon she bounced her hand to the tune. As I thought about the song and then the movie, I realized how much of the story embodied Leigh’s life here on earth.

As I didn’t know my sister pre-brain tumor, I can’t reflect on who she was before medicine intervened. I hear stories and see pictures, however that isn’t the Leigh I know. 

In doing some research regarding Leigh’s tumor, I discovered that the location as well as the invasive brain surgery and radiation greatly altered her life starting at the age of six.

These alterations included physical, mental, social and emotional challenges which made her unique, often frustrated, and as hard as this is to say, lonely. Being different is hard.

Leigh did not let that deter her though. She used it as fuel.  With the help and support of her loving parents and family, Leigh found a path right for her and traveled courageously. She worked hard, persisted, and went on to defy the odds. College degree? Nailed it. Master’s degree, sure, no problem! Teaching children, yes please!

And even though those barriers remained throughout her life, she was resilient, again, and again, and again. Until her very last breath.

If you aren’t familiar with the lyrics of Puff the Magic Dragon, it tells of a love story between a little boy named Jackie Paper and his playmate Puff the Dragon (who some believe to be imaginary). The song goes on to tell about Jackie and Puffs adventures. Leigh acquired her love of adventure from our father, and she was always up for new endeavors. I am so thankful my parents continued to embrace this adventurous side of her even as her body grew weary. 

But alas, the song continues “a dragon lives forever but not so with girls and boys. Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys.” You see, Jackie Paper grew up, stopped believing in Magic and Puff was forgotten. 

And here is where Leigh’s sweet song ends differently. Leigh and Puff remained lifelong friends. Puff was never left behind. You see, the challenges Leigh faced were also blessings and beautiful lessons for those of us around her, you might even say magical. She held onto her childlike faith when she easily could have asked “why me?”.  She loved unconditionally when bitterness could have sown a seed in her heart. She cherished loved ones and let nothing get in the way of spending time together. She used her talents to help and serve others without any selfish motives. 

While she is no longer a teacher in the classroom, her best lessons have been taught by how she lived her life.

In 1975, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) removed Leigh’s tumor and allowed my sister to live this very full life until the age of 51. This foundation would have been very beneficial to my parents and family all those years ago. I plan to attend CHOP’s pediatric pituitary brain tumor day on May 2nd to thank them and make a donation in my sister’s memory.  Thank you for contributing to a foundation that means so much to so many.