Patti Ann McDonald and her late husband, Steven, were married for about 31 years. For 30 of them, Steven lived as a quadriplegic who relied on a respirator.
McDonald told the story of her husband, a New York City police detective who was paralyzed after being shot in Central Park in 1986, during a Women’s History Month lunch on March 22 at Rockville Centre’s Sandel Senior Center.
Steven, who grew up in Rockville Centre and became known nationwide for his messages of forgiveness and love after being shot, died on Jan. 10, 2017. His death came four days after he suffered a heart attack at his home in Malverne. He was 59.
McDonald also shared how the tragedy changed her. “I had a voice before, but my voice got a little louder for Steven,” she said.
The annual lunch came at the end of Women’s History Month, and the center chose to invite McDonald, who not only showed strength while caring for Steven for three decades, but has also served as Malverne’s mayor for 12 years. She announced in January that she would not seek a fourth term.
“Today, young people really don’t need any convincing about the contributions and talents of women, and in fact they might think it’s strange to have Women’s History Month at all,” said Chris O’Leary, director of the Sandel Center. “But older adults know that it wasn’t all that long ago that women were considered second-class citizens, and had to struggle for the right to vote, the right to own property and the right to succeed in business.”
O’Leary added that three Sandel Center members were born before women gained the right to vote in 1919, including 105-year-old Selma Stone, who attended the talk.
“Patti is a woman that has a unique power of being able to look at the world’s problems and discover solutions that transform lives and make the world a better place,” said Nancy Codispoti, deputy director of the village’s department of senior services, as she introduced the afternoon’s speaker.
McDonald, who grew up in Malverne, met Steven at a local bar when she was 21. “That saying, love at first sight,” she said. “It surely was.” About six months into their relationship, Steven was called to be a police officer, and the two got engaged when he was in the police academy. They were married in November 1985, and in June of the following year, they found out McDonald was pregnant with their son, Conor.
Steven was first assigned to Alphabet City in Manhattan, and was later moved to Central Park, which McDonald recalled thinking was a safer area. She was working at a magazine in Manhattan, and the two were set to move there at the end of the year.
“Life was good,” she told the room of seniors. “Life was the way that we had planned it.”
But on July 12, 1986, she got a phone call that Steven had been shot in the arm while on duty. When she got to Bellevue Hospital, she saw a line of police officers outside his room, and realized it was more serious than she thought.
“It wasn’t a shot in the arm,” she said. “It was a shot not only in the arm, but in his neck and in his eye.” She went in to see Steven, who was attached to a respirator. “He still looked at me and gave me a wink and a smile, like it’s going to be OK,” McDonald added, “but it wasn’t at that time, because they didn’t know if Steven was going to live or die.”
In the days after, a doctor told her that Steven was paralyzed. “I felt like I got punched in the stomach,” she said. Steven would publicly forgive the 15-year-old boy who shot him the following year, McDonald recalled, which helped her family through the tough time.
Steven was at Bellevue Hospital for about nine months, and moved to Craig Hospital, in Colorado, for about seven months. When the couple returned home to Malverne, McDonald was Steven’s primary caregiver.
She adjusted her life, caring for Steven around the clock. She became more attentive at night, when Steven sometimes had trouble sleeping, and did whatever little thing she could to make his life better, like stocking up on V8 juice, his favorite. She grew stronger through the years, she said, appreciating life and not letting things bother her as much. “We managed,” McDonald said. “Ups and downs, but we did it.”
Each member of the audience received “Why Forgive?” a book by Johann Christoph Arnold, with a foreword by Steven McDonald.
Among those in attendance was Chauncey Mitchell, a 1976 graduate of South Side High School, who recalled going to school with Steven and playing baseball and basketball with him as a child. “God Bless you Patti Ann. Your words and your spirit are inspiring,” he said, noting that his daughter, Marie J. Bruce, who was born with severe brain damage, died in 2001 when she was 13. He added how strong his family, including his wife, Lois, was through it all. “Strength comes in all shapes, sizes, colors,” he said.
Conor McDonald followed in his father’s footsteps, and is now an NYPD sergeant, Patti said. She is happy her husband got to see his son grow up, and the two continue to spread Steven’s message.
“Steven’s story of love and forgiveness is something that has helped not only me, but many other people,” McDonald said, “and I want to continue that work.”