MS Society honors local woman; friends tell story of caring, community
Patricia Ward of rural Princeton traveled Feb. 11 to Brooklyn Center where the National Multiple Sclerosis Society presented her with its Care Partner of the Year award due to her ongoing efforts to care for longtime friend Rhonda Danielson, as well as her husband, Jim.
Ward said while she appreciates the honor, she’s a little uncomfortable with the label “luminary” because she isn’t an angel or brilliant genius prompting global change, she’s just an old friend trying to help.
Rhonda has multiple sclerosis, an unpredictable disease of the central nervous system that interrupts signals between the brain and body. Ward explained that while some forms of MS can come and go, Rhonda’s stays and has gradually degraded her mobility and function to the point that she must use a wheelchair and cannot use her left arm.
Rhonda’s husband of 35 years, Jim Danielson, has tongue cancer and also needs round-the-clock medical care. Ward moved into their rural-Princeton home four years ago to help. Ward and Rhonda met when they attended the same technical college for a two-year horse-training program.
“Out of all the friends I have, I’ve known Rhonda the longest,” Ward said.
After college, the two women traveled around the country training and grooming on the horse-show circuit before returning home to Minnesota. The friends kept in touch, and Ward said everything started when one day she got an urgent-sounding call from her daughter that something was wrong with Rhonda, who by then was in a wheelchair.
Jim had been caring for the horses, one of which got spooked and accidentally shoved him into a stall wall. The incident shattered his shoulder and left him unable to care for Rhonda. Ward visited and saw the couple was struggling. She cleaned out the barn and took over care for the animal, including including to find a source for good hay throughout the winter.
The trio arrived at the decision that Ward would be become Rhonda’s health aid. Within a year’s time, Jim began to have trouble with his jaw, which degraded into miserable illness. A doctor visit and testing revealed why. Jim has endured chemotherapy and radiation and eats with a feeding tube. Rhonda says without Ward’s help, there is no way she and Jim could be together.
Ward helps administer several kinds of medical care, runs errands, does dishes, cares for the cat and one horse Rhonda has had nearly 30 years. She arranges rides when Rhonda needs to travel and says that is difficult because unless the Timber Trails transit buses are running, the group can expect to pay well over $100 for a wheelchair-capable transport.
Ward recently procured a hydraulic lifting tool that helps move Rhonda from one place or position to another, “That has made a huge difference,” she said.
She’s grateful for Helping Hands volunteers who visited over the summer from the Grand Casino Mille Lacs. The volunteers cleaned up the grounds and sheds and made some repairs and improvements to the home where Rhonda and Jim have lived for 30 years.
Ward said she might have to seek help with mowing the lawn because while the Danielsons have a riding lawnmower, she cannot reach the pedals of it without coming off the seat, which activates the mower’s kill switch and cuts its power.
Together then, now
Rhonda said Ward is the one responsible for her having met Jim, and the story started at an Arizona horse show. Ward visited the Flying Buffalo book store in Scottsdale, which referred her to the Little Tin Soldier book store in Minneapolis that held a form of the role-playing game wildly popular at the time.
Ward went to check them out one Friday night, but Rhonda didn’t go because she had to work early on Saturday mornings. Ward said she just wanted to watch the game, but the “ref,” a facilitator of sorts, refused to allow it and insisted she acquire a character and costume then play. Ward played, had a great time and called Rhonda the next morning to urge her to go play, too.
Rhonda said it was probably four weeks in a row Ward asked her before she had a Saturday morning off and said yes. It was there she met the feisty ref – Jim – who also didn’t let her just watch but insisted that she get a character and costume to play.
“I still have the character,” Rhonda said, “and 11 months later I married the ref.”
Rhonda and Jim are both retired now, though she would work at home if she could get high-speed internet and has written a patients’ advocate book she’ll seek to publish. Rhonda worked as a horsewoman most of her life, as well as with Jim at AT&T and in the banking industry.
Ward said her experience as a health aide at Abbott Northwestern has served her well. She’s also worked as a horse trainer and groomer, for other health facilities, at the Oliver Kelley Farm in Elk River, at McDonald’s in Princeton and some other places.
Ward’s daughter is also a health-care worker, and her son worked with the Army Corps of Engineers and is now in construction. She is extremely proud of her children but said she accepts little credit for their success. She doesn’t think of herself as a model mom or an award-winning “luminary.”
“Rhonda signed me up for that,” Ward said about the honor, “she and Jim.”
Ward knew something was amiss when she came home one day and there was a big, beautiful bouquet of flowers to announce that she was the honored nominee. Rhonda said they traveled to Brooklyn Center for a nice banquet that MS calls its “Oscar night.”
She was happy to see her friend get the honor, while Ward credits the community for more help than she could name including help to fix the house, feed the animals, care for the property and make sure Rhonda and Jim have everything they need.