Love, caring help Crystal Barton reach 71 despite Down syndrome
Barbara Doerschuk slowly turns the pages of a thick photo album in the hope the images of past vacations, holidays and birthdays will trigger a response from her older half-sister, Crystal Barton.
But Barton, who is a nonverbal adult with Down syndrome, has her attention focused elsewhere, staring silently at others who have come to visit her on a recent fall day at the DuPage Convalescent Center.
Undeterred, Doerschuk points to a photograph of a younger Barton posing with a fishing rod on a boat and talks about how she used to love fishing on Lake Michigan -- long before Barton moved into the Wheaton facility in March 2009.
While she rarely speaks, Barton can communicate through her eyes, according to Doerschuk.
So Doerschuk visits her half-sister as much as she can. And when does visit, she almost always brings photographs.
"We didn't put her here to forget about her," said the West Chicago resident. Indeed, there are times when Barton will look at photographs of relatives or herself -- and remember.
It's those frequent visits that have staff members at the convalescent center crediting Doerschuk for helping Barton recently achieve a significant milestone: Her 71st birthday.
After Barton was born on Nov. 2, 1941, in Ohio, doctors told her parents she wouldn't live more than 30 years.
That's because individuals with Down syndrome -- a condition that affects the cognitive ability as well as physical growth -- often develop a heart defect or breathing problems, according to Doerschuk.
But Doerschuk says her half-sister has had very few health problems. Barton has outlived her three older sisters.
Barton was just 2 years old when her mother died of leukemia. Her father, Gene, married Doerschuk's mother, Lena, three years later. The couple had three children, including two boys, Bill and Ed.
As long as she can remember, Barbara Doerschuk says Crystal Barton was a part of her life.
"She was always there when we came home from school," Doerschuk recalled. "We would always share sodas and Twinkies."
Lena Barton raised her stepdaughter for more than four decades in southern Ohio.
After her stepmother died in 1988, Crystal Barton spent a decade living with one of her sisters. When that sister died in 1998, Barton moved to West Chicago to live with Doerschuk.
"She's the only sister I ever knew," Doerschuk said.
During their time together, Doerschuk took Barton everywhere. There were monthly trips to Nashville to visit relatives and vacations to Disney World and Aspen, Colo.
Doerschuk said her half-sister is very social and enjoys being around others. When she was admitted to the convalescent center, Barton asked Doerschuk: "Can I stay here?"
"I told her that I was going to check with her tomorrow," Doerschuk said. "I'm still checking on her."
More than three years later, she continues to do Barton's laundry and often decorates her room. When Barton celebrated her 71st birthday, Doerschuk brought cake, ice cream and beverages.
"It's a celebration every year," Doerschuk said, "because she's one of the oldest (people living with Down syndrome)."
While medical advances have extended the life expectancy of individuals with Down syndrome, staff members at the convalescent center say they believe Barton has benefited from her relationship with Doerschuk.
"I think a lot of it is the love and the care that Crystal feels," said Christa Harden, a recreation therapy aide, when asked about Barton's good health.
Shauna Berman, manager of resident and volunteer services at the convalescent center, says Doerschuk is engaged in Barton's care.
"For Crystal, I think that helps a lot," Berman said, "because she gets to reminisce about the things that she used to do. Hearing her (Doerschuk's) voice makes her feel at ease."
Doerschuk said her goal is that Barton will someday become the oldest woman living with Down syndrome. That record is held by an 87-year-old woman in the United Kingdom, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
"Crystal is going to be a record-setter," she said.
About this seriesAbout this series
This is the time of year when it never hurts to sit back for just a moment amid all the hustle and bustle and reflect on the people who make our lives just a little bit better, who always seem to be there for us, who put the heart and soul in our communities.
There are countless such people across DuPage County, of course, and over the next week or so we'd like to introduce you to a few of them. During a time of reflection, these truly are People to be Thankful For.