Tough Napa family gets help, enjoys freedom again

The story of Donald and Nancy Keen has many layers: It is a love story, a story of family and community and of perseverance.

The couple will celebrate their 50th anniversary in January. Life has been tough the past several years, but they have been tougher.

When things recently became difficult, a helping hand from The Chronicle’s Season of Sharing Fund was all they needed to enjoy life at their Napa home again.

The couple met at a USO dance in Philadelphia where Donald, a California native, was serving in the Navy. They moved back and forth between the East Coast and California before eventually settling in Napa. Donald found work hauling supplies to bricklayers and masons, and then became an award-winning car salesman, a top seller of Chryslers, Cadillacs and Subarus in Vallejo.

He was diagnosed with asbestosis way back in 1987 after years in a Philadelphia shipyard, where he says he refurbished a battleship for the Vietnam War while asbestos was flying everywhere.

Breathing became increasingly difficult. Now 70, Donald is on oxygen around the clock. He suffers from diabetes, heart disease and end-stage renal failure, and he requires dialysis four times a week. He has been hospitalized repeatedly.

“I couldn’t tell you how many times he’s been taken to the hospital,” said Nancy, 69, who works at an assisted-care facility near their home. “I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been told he wasn’t going to make it through the night.”

Living in a single-wide mobile home, Donald had trouble walking and needed help getting down the stairs and into a van to get to dialysis. Once, one of his three sons, who lives across town, tried to carry him in a kitchen chair. It didn’t go well. Other times, he tried to do it by himself or with his wife’s help, and injured himself.

To keep that from happening again, they relied on a local ambulance service. But at $100 per trip, the bill for transportation mounted quickly. Napa firefighters met Donald several times when he was injured or needed help getting in and out of his home, and the Napa City Firefighters Association‘s community projects team decided to build him a wheelchair ramp. But his mobile home didn’t have enough room.

Leg amputated

Then, in May, Donald had to have his right leg amputated. He moved to a larger, double-wide mobile home but needed a wheelchair to get around. The firefighters association began a campaign to get him a portable wheelchair lift. Community Action of Napa Valley contacted The Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund, which bought a top-notch portable ramp that fit the narrow space beside his mobile home. The firefighters association installed the electric lift.

It has made a huge difference. Donald uses it not only for his trips for dialysis but to sit in the yard to watch the squirrels play or make an occasional trip out for dinner. Before the lift, Nancy said, they couldn’t afford to pay $200 to get him in and out of the van for an occasional dinner date. They like to dine out, often with their sons, at places such as the Red Hen Cantina and the Mini Garden Chinese Restaurant in Napa.

“Now he has freedom,” Nancy said. “Before, he was a prisoner in the house.”

Donald says the lift was a gift of mobility and self-assurance.

“Oh, geez, it’s helped so much,” he said. “It makes things very much easier. It makes it easier for my wife, too.”

Eli Cronbach, a Napa firefighter, heads the projects team, which aims to help disabled people and seniors who have trouble getting around, especially in and out of their homes.

“Before that lift was installed, he could not get out of that house by himself,” Cronbach said. “Not only was it a mobility issue, but it really was a safety issue, too.”

Sister moves in

In addition to the wheelchair lift, the Keens got another boost when they took in his sister, Donna Greer, who was homeless and living in a car after her husband died and she fell victim to a refinancing scam. Donna helps to move Donald, using a manual hoist and cloth sling, between the wheelchair and a recliner, and keeps him company.

“She’s my hero,” Nancy said. “We’re a family.”

As appreciative as they are of the wheelchair lift, Nancy said, she and Donald have decided that it’s something they should share.

“If anything happens to him and he no longer needs it,” she said, “we have decided it goes back to the firefighters association and can go to someone else who needs it as desperately as we do.”


Michael Cabanatuan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. He can be reached by e-mail at or on Twitter @ctuan.

The original article can be found here.