Debra Bohnson was running on the track at Colby College during the Special Olympics when one of her competitors stumbled and fell behind her. She stopped, helped the girl up and held her arm so they could cross the finish line together.

When Miss Bohnson’s friends, family and caregivers gather Sunday for visiting hours and a chapel service in South Portland, they will remember a woman whose medical challenges left her with a child’s innocence throughout her 39 years.

They also will say goodbye to someone who showed people around her how to make the most of life, regardless of its difficulties.

“She was wonderful. She was unique. She inspired people. She made people care,” said her mother and longtime caregiver and advocate, Barbara Berry of Windham.

Miss Bohnson died on Sunday at Maine Medical Center in Portland from colon cancer, a sudden and unexpected diagnosis.

She was remarkable even as a baby. When she was 7 months old, doctors called her a genius because she was so advanced in toilet training, getting around, comprehension and early vocabulary, said her mother.

“Her eyes just glittered with excitement and a joy of life,” she said.

When she was 8 months old, a stroke damaged Miss Bohnson’s brain, triggering 400 seizures a day. She endured multiple medical treatments, and her resulting condition was severe cognitive impairment.

She was sent to specialists in Boston. Her case was so unusual that it was written up in medical journals. What made her special, though, was how she responded.

She struggled to walk on her own. For several years, she endured five to six hours of physical therapy a day.

Miss Bohnson’s mother was an accomplished physical therapist, with training in helping stroke victims. She worked every day with her daughter, making sure the muscles on her left side — which was affected severely by the stroke — didn’t tighten and lose mobility.

“She was good natured and it was peaceful,” her mother said. “I would bring her in to inspire stroke patients who had given up.

“My daughter touched so many lives and she gave so many parents courage,” she said.

Miss Bohnson’s case was reported in the Maine Sunday Telegram as her parents worked to publicize the lack of community services for the disabled and their families. Miss Bohnson had lived at Pineland for many years and received excellent care there, her mother said. When the state facility closed, there were few options.

Miss Bohnson ultimately moved into a group home designed around her and a few others who had severe disabilities. There, she took great pleasure from simple activities and accomplishments.

She enjoyed delivering the mail, helping with household chores and pushing the wheelchairs of other residents. She relished praise for a job well done.

She tirelessly blew kisses and gave hugs.

“There were parts of her that were still so smart, and she had a wicked sense of humor,” her mother said. “She’d watch television with us and she’d catch something funny before we would and laugh out loud.”

She earned the nickname “Sunshine” for her spontaneous joy and relentless good cheer. It could just have easily applied to the people around her, who were warmed by her affection and impressed by her nurturing nature.

“She was happy — more than a lot of people that have a normal life as far as I can see,” said her father, Richard Bohnson Jr. of Gray. “She never didn’t have a smile on her face.”

In 14 years at her group home in Auburn, Miss Bohnson earned a reputation as a social butterfly and a glamor queen, who loved dressing up and getting her picture taken, her mother said.

She loved dancing, especially with her stepfather of 35 years, Howard Berry.

“She loved to slow dance and rest her head on his shoulder. She would close her eyes and it would be like a cat with catnip,” her mother said.

Even in her final days, in Maine Medical Center’s special care unit, Miss Bohnson was impressing the staff and other patients.

“Debbie was still reaching and teaching people how very rewarding it was to become part of her little world,” her mother wrote in an online obituary for Hobbs Funeral Home.

Her family expects many friends at the visiting hours at Hobbs Funeral Home on Cottage Road. A second celebration is scheduled July 26 for those who cannot attend on Sunday.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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