Twenty-seven years ago, doctors told Andy Fierlit that it would be easier to admit his wife to a nursing home and get on with his life. Partially paralyzed from a brain aneurysm, Donna Fierlit would require far too much care, they said, to live at home with her family or experience much beyond the ordinary.
Andy, then 46, listened carefully to the experts and decided to take the “care” part of their advice to heart. “For better or worse,” was what he’d recited in his wedding vows, and “for better or worse” was exactly how he intended to make do.
Instead of touring care centers, the Connecticut father of four booked a cruise for two to Bermuda, packed suitcases for himself and Donna and never looked back. In nearly three decades, the Fierlits have now visited all seven continents — more than 20 countries in all — and are now saving up for a Scandinavian vacation later this year.
“Sure, it’s a challenge, but I’ve loved Donna from the day I met her and can’t imagine doing anything else,” Andy, a retired Knights of Columbus employee from North Haven, tells PEOPLE. “From that first trip, I’ve always said, ‘Why not?’ The worst that can happen is that it turns into a nightmare.”
Although there are often problems maneuvering now-73-year-old Donna’s wheelchair in countries with less accessibility for the disabled, traveling the world with his wife has been a dream for the most part, he says.
“She never complains, she never asks, ‘Why me?’ and she’s grateful that this happened to her and not her children or grandchildren,” says Andy, 73.
He says, “Donna isn’t mobile and she has short-term memory problems, but she can tell you her father’s license plate from 1955, and she’s a lot of fun to travel with. We have a deep love for each other and we’ve always believed that when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.”
High school sweethearts who met in 1958, the Fierlits married 52 years ago and and now have four children and 12 grandchildren. Donna was at a Christmas party in 1991 when she developed a severe migraine and tried to sleep it off. The next day, she collapsed from an aneurysm that paralyzed her left side.
When Andy refused to put her in a care center, his children weren’t surprised.
“My parents have really tested the ‘for better or worse, in sickness and in health’ part of their wedding vows,” says daughter Allison Peters, “but my mom getting sick never changed their love for one another. It just made it grow in a different direction, and I think it focused them to live each day to the fullest and not put off things they wanted to do. That’s why they’ve traveled the world.”
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Andy, who helps his wife get dressed each day, admits that traveling isn’t always easy, but he and Donna have learned to laugh when things don’t work out as planned.
“At the Brussels train station, they didn’t have a wheelchair ramp, so they put Donna in a luggage cart,” he tells PEOPLE, “and in Zimbabwe, where they only had stairs to get off the plane, six guys carried her off. On every trip, we go where the locals go and we almost always encounter caring, loving people. Everyone loves Donna, and to see her light up a room always makes me happy that she’s still by my side.”
As for Donna, who has nicknamed her purple wheelchair “Proud Mary” after her favorite Tina Turner song, “I’ve had a spectacular life and I’m extremely grateful,” she says. “Every day has been an adventure with a husband like Andy.”
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