Bringing Awareness to Cystic Fibrosis

When you were in high school or college did you ever have a wild house party? Come on be honest. You told your parents just a few friends and before you knew it the entire student body was in your living room. Rob Donovan certainly had a few of these nights. “Not only did he live life to the fullest, but he could command a crowd. When Rob walked into a room, everyone went to him and within two minutes he would have the group laughing,” says Colleen Donovan, Rob’s mother. Rob suffered from Cystic Fibrosis, a life threatening disease that causes the body to produce mucous that affects the lungs, organs, and systems in the human body.

From an early age, Rob experienced many health problems, most of which were repeatedly misdiagnosed as asthma. Donovan watched helplessly as her son’s health steadily declined. When Rob was 16, Donovan decided to switch doctors and Rob was finally diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis. “We were devastated, we believed Cystic Fibrosis had been ruled out years ago,” says Donovan. By this point Rob’s lung capacity had deteriorated to 34%; leaving him behind the eight ball with an exceedingly difficult disease. Being a genetic disorder, Donovan’s other three children were tested for Cystic Fibrosis and it was discovered that her nine-year old daughter, Karen, also had the disease.

Over the next several years, Rob would make the most out of life while he waited for a suitable donor for a double lung transplant. On February 25, 2005, everyone’s prayers were answered: they had found a match. The surgery was a success and Rob regained a sense of normality in his life. “It was nice to see him do all the simple things that people take for granted like jump on a bike and go for a ride,” recalls Donovan.

Five years after the transplant, Rob began to experience stomach pain that was not related to his Cystic Fibrosis. It was discovered that Rob was suffering from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a type of cancer that can occur with transplants. “With Rob and his donor there was a mismatch in the Epstein-Barr Virus that causes mononucleosis (mono), which they believed caused his cancer. We were aware of the mismatch, but if we waited for another donor they thought he would have died,” explains Donovan adding that Hodgkin’s Lymphoma usually develops within one year after a transplant and Rob had already survived five years with his lung transplantation. Rob and his family were in disbelief. “How can one person get two horribly deadly diseases?” questions Donovan.

In order to be treated for the cancer, Rob had to stop taking anti-rejection medications for his lungs. Without the medication, his body began to reject the transplant. “Treating the cancer shut down the lungs, which the doctors said wouldn’t happen. Rob began to experience internal bleeding that they couldn’t stop,” says Donovan. On September 16, 2011, Donovan and her family watched as the nurses took Rob off of life support machines; he was only 31 years old. “His fragile body could no longer house his wonderful spirit,” says Donovan.

Donovan’s loss has undoubtedly changed her outlook on life. “When they say don’t sweat the small stuff, I don’t sweat the small stuff,” explains Donovan. “It makes you empathetic to people who have sick children and who are caregivers. It gives you a deep understanding of other people.”

In 2013, Donovan left her career in the banking industry and started her own staging company called CMD Home Staging. While working as the Vice President of Membership for the Real Estate Staging Association, Donovan met Lynn MacMillan, a fellow stager and Interior Designer who had also left the banking industry. “I recruited her and we ended up doing quite a few jobs together,” recalls Donovan.

It didn’t take long before the two became business partners. Their company, GEM Home Staging & Designs, offers a wide variety of services to their clients. Whether they are staging a home for sale on the market, consulting on colours, referrals, or helping to redesign a home, the pair are able to use both a staging and interior design approach to meet the needs of the client. “We also provide the seller with trade resources and discounts at paint stores,” says MacMillan.

“It sounds like glamorous shopping, but it is a lot of work,” explains MacMillan adding that they travel to Toronto a few days a week to seek out deals with wholesalers.

“Neither one of us knew how much work it would be,” says Donovan. From setting up to tearing down, at times staging homes can feel like a huge feat. “It takes a while to find a vision for a house and hours to prepare it properly,” explains Donovan. “It’s almost sad when you have to undo it.”

The pair has definitely found their calling as they have a growing list of accolades. Recently, one of MacMillan’s luxury Niagara homes was featured on WNetwork’s television show, Buying the View and Donovan, who also writes a blog with advice for homeowners on her website, was interviewed on Kapeleris Talk TV (Rogers Television).

“People see our items in a staged home and they call us to ask us to do it in their home,” says MacMillan.

The “GEM” name isn’t an acronym, but holds a meaning of brilliance, beauty, and other meanings that come along with different gemstones. “In real estate you often hear, ‘look at this little gem,’” says MacMillan. “The name just fit.”

Two aspects of being a business owner that Donovan values the most are the ability to show her creative side and support the charity of her choice; Cystic Fibrosis Canada. Three percent of all of GEM’s earnings are donated to the organization. “We can also support other charities, but the majority will go to Cystic Fibrosis,” says Donovan. “I am thrilled that I get to do this.”

Rob’s story is unforgettable and somewhat unbelievable, it reads like a Nicholas Sparks or John Green novel that could easily become a movie. Although it has been painful for Donovan to retell, she knows it is necessary in order to bring more awareness of the disease with the ultimate hope of helping her daughter Karen. “This is my tragic story. If by telling the story people are willing to help, then I have achieved my goal. I want to save my daughter,” says Donovan.

Recently, Daniel Pasco, Owner and CEO of REV Publishing, read Colleen Donovan’s Facebook post about her son and daughter’s journeys with Cystic Fibrosis and he was immediately compelled by the story. “When I was in my early 20s, I was quite ill with ulcerative colitis and was hospitalized for several months at Wellesley Hospital in downtown Toronto. They placed me in the ward with Cystic Fibrosis patients,” explains Pasco. “I was so sick that the doctors didn’t think I would make it. The patients with Cystic Fibrosis would get together and pray at the end of my bed,” recalls Pasco, who witnessed first-hand the effects the disease has on individuals and the high mortality rate.  “At times the patients would be in my room chatting with me and trying to be positive and at the end of the week they passed on and it made it hard for me to heal,” explains Pasco. “The young deceased patients were on stretchers, zipped up in black bags, and it was the most horrible experience I’ve encountered. One day you’re having a conversation and the next day they’ve disappeared…it was like a movie. I’d cry myself to sleep every night hoping I’m not the next victim, but my disease was not as life threatening as theirs,” says Pasco.

Donovan is living every parent’s worst nightmare; the loss of a child. Through her grief she continues to focus on the health of her daughter. “In some ways I am in denial. I believed Rob was the miracle. Karen is in much better health then he ever was. It makes me believe she will live longer,” says Donovan. “Now they have infant screening and every child in Ontario has a genetic test done within days of being born. Kids nowadays will never have to go through what my son went through,” says Donovan. For more information visit:

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