The 53-year-old Marissa woman appreciates the fact her friends and co-workers are planning a benefit, but it has put her in an odd position. She is usually the one helping people through crises.
Donna is a 911 operator, radio dispatcher and shift supervisor with St. Clair County's Emergency Telephone Systems Board CenCom in Belleville, which serves 26 police departments, 15 fire departments and other agencies.
She handles calls related to murders, robberies, car accidents, suicides, missing persons, domestic disputes and everything in between.
"She's tough," said Tina Joaquin, 46, of Fairmont City, a CenCom training supervisor. "Just when you think a situation's going to get out of hand, she's got it under control."
Donna also is an emergency medical technician who volunteers as a first responder with Marissa Fire Department.
A benefit mouse race is being sponsored by the Fraternal Order of Police Metro-East Lodge No. 262 and St. Clair-Monroe Fire Chiefs Association with help from the Metro Counties Mutual Aid Group. It will be held at 6 p.m. Friday at Caseyville Moose Lodge.
"It's the nicest thing that's ever been done for me by the nicest people," Donna said. "But it doesn't surprise me because they're EMTs, firefighters and policemen. That's what they do. They help people."
Donna has four children, ages 14 to 36, and two grandchildren. She loves the outdoors, animals, gardening and going places with sunny beaches.
Donna's medical ordeal began a year ago with chronic headaches. Then arm tremors sent her to the hospital in March.
Doctors discovered two brain aneurysms, one on each side. They performed surgeries on June 6 and July 25, cutting open Donna's skull and installing "clips" to prevent blood from entering and causing further growth or leakage.
Donna returned to work Monday after being off all summer. Co-workers welcomed her with a cake, balloons, warm wishes on a dry erase board and plenty of hugs.
"There was no nervousness coming back because there were all these good people waiting on me," Donna said.
She had her telephone headset strapped over a 911 baseball cap, covering scars on her head but allowing her long, brown ponytail to poke out.
Donna's boss, Communications Manager Patti Michaels, has been instrumental in organizing the benefit.
"We knew (Donna's health problems were) going to be catastrophic on her finances," said Patti, 62, of Smithton. "She's a single mom, and she has a lot of expenses, and she would never, ever asks anyone for anything."
Many of Donna's most difficult calls as a 911 operator and police dispatcher involve suicidal people. She tries to keep them talking on the phone until help arrives.
One of her most rewarding cases involved a farmer who accidentally cut off his leg. She talked his son through the rescue, instructing him to put the leg in a trash bag so doctors could reattach it.
Donna admits the job can be stressful but notes that CenCom employees are trained to deal with life's tragedies.
"You don't have time to dwell on the bad thing that just happened," she said. "You have to keep moving. You have to multi-task. But I can't imagine doing anything else. I think I would be bored to death in a quiet office."
Proceeds from the benefit will pay for expenses not covered by Donna's health insurance. A fund also has been established at Citizens Community Bank in New Athens.
Organizers see the benefit as a way to pay Donna back for her public service.
"She takes care of her first responders," said Herb Simmons, 59, assistant director of the St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency, mayor of East Carondelet for 29 years and former owner of an ambulance company.
"She wants to make sure they're safe. If you're a police officer or an EMT or a firefighter, it's a good feeling to know that you've got someone (on the phone or radio) you can trust."
At a glance
What: Benefit for Donna Wilkerson
When: 6 p.m. Friday
Where: Caseyville Moose Lodge, 8550 Bunkum Lane, Caseyville
Activities: Mouse race, silent auction, raffle for a barrel of booze
Donations: 911 Donna Wilkerson Benefit, c/o Citizens Community Bank, 704 New Baldwin Road, New Athens, IL 62264