Donna L. Hansen, a former congressional staffer whose lifelong struggle with diabetes led her to become an advocate for diabetes and cardiac research, died Nov. 15 from heart and kidney failure at Carroll Hospice's Dove House. The Sykesville resident was 56.
"She was diagnosed with diabetes when she was 8 years old, suffered her first heart attack when she was 21, and a second heart attack when she was 31," said her husband of 25 years, Steven Hansen.
"When her heart disease forced her to quit full-time work, she devoted herself to helping those with diabetes and cardiac disease, and helped initiate an important new outreach program in her Columbia church," said Mr. Hansen.
"Donna was an angel, and I had such admiration for her being a determined person in order to have a good life," said Rep. Don Young of Alaska, a family friend. "She was willing and had the ability to accept what was given her. She was inspirational and had courage and was still trying to overcome things until the last minute. What a great lady."
The daughter of Louis Amistadi, a steelworker, and Bernice Amistadi, a homemaker, Donna Louise Amistadi was born in Sewickley, Pa., and raised in Baden, Pa. She graduated in 1975 from Ambridge High School in Ambridge, Pa.
After earning a bachelor's degree in 1979 in speech pathology from California University of Pennsylvania in California, Pa., she joined the congressional staff of Sen. Harrison Schmitt of New Mexico and later went to work as a staffer for Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska.
"While working for Senator Murkowski, she developed a deep love for the people and wildlife of Alaska, where she often traveled to many of the smaller Alaska communities to listen to the concerns of local residents," said her husband, who met his future wife when he was a member of Rep. Young's staff.
They married in 1988.
She also supervised the high school and college intern program for Sen. Murkowski and oversaw the office's computer operations.
Ms. Hansen became a close friend of Lisa Murkowski, who served three terms in the Alaska House of Representatives and was the daughter of Sen. Murkowski. Ms. Murkowski was appointed in 2002 to finish his term after he resigned to become governor of Alaska.
In 2004, Lisa Murkowski was elected to her first full term in the U.S. Senate.
Ms. Hansen got to know her when Mr. Hansen was traveling throughout Alaska for Rep. Young.
"Donna would come and show up at the Midnight Sun Republican Women's International Food Festival at Chilkoot Charlies," said Lisa Murkowski.
"We got donations from ethnic restaurants all over town and typically sold 700 tickets and raised money for organizations all over Anchorage such as Victims for Justice, Covenant House and other organizations," she said.
Ms. Hansen joined the organization that planned the event each year.
"She came on as an honorary member of the club and helped us with the food fest. She would cold-call restaurants, organize us and orchestrate, and then leave shortly after that. So we dubbed her the fairy godmother," Lisa Murkowski said. "We were all young moms with kids, jobs and no time, and Donna would swoop in with her organizational magic wand and just take control."
Lisa Murkowski described Ms. Hansen as being "always upbeat, smiling and calm in the midst of all the chaos that would go on as we approached these events."
She praised Ms. Hansen's ability to come into a "strange situation and make friends so easily, go to work, get the job done and then just move on to the next thing. I don't think I've ever met anyone quite like that. She fit in so perfectly and seamlessly and worked with a bunch of people she didn't even know."
A serious heart condition forced Ms. Hansen to retire in 1989, and she then turned her attention to becoming an outspoken advocate for diabetes and cardiac research.
As a Type 1 diabetic, she was active in fundraising for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and in 1999 received the Diane Bredar Award from Howard County General Hospital for her work for the Walk to Cure Diabetes. She also headed fundraising drives for the Johns Hopkins Heart and Vascular Institute.
"Donna liked working with children who had diabetes," her husband said.
Ms. Hansen was a longtime active member of New Hope Lutheran Church in Columbia, where she sang with the choir and was a Stephen Ministry counselor. She also helped establish the church's Prayer Shawl Ministry and Friends Helping Friends Ministry.
She served on the Mutual Ministry for Lutheran Bishop H. Gerard Knoche of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, until he retired in 2009.
"She was a very spiritual person," her husband said.
"Two things come to mind when discussing Donna," said the Rev. John R. Sabatelli, who is the interim pastor of New Hope Lutheran Church as well as a longtime member of its congregation. "She was a very gracious woman, and I never heard her complain or ask because of her illness, 'Why me?' She also had a deep and abiding faith that allowed her to be gracious in the face of death."
Ms. Hansen was an accomplished salmon fisherman, a sport she took up during her days in Alaska. She also enjoyed needleworking, painting and working in her herb garden.
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at her church, 8575 Guilford Road, Columbia.
In addition to her husband of 25 years, Ms. Hansen is survived by a brother, David Amistadi of Severn; and a nephew.