Colleen Wuebben of Omaha and actor Michael J. Fox nearly bumped into each other — literally — at a 2010 event for his foundation in New York City. They smiled and chatted.
The two had something in common — Parkinson's disease.
Just as he has done internationally, she has campaigned against the disease locally, raising awareness and money to help those in need. She also fought a personal battle against uterine cancer, and the combination finally proved too much.
Colleen, 60, died at 10:10 p.m. Wednesday at home in northwest Omaha, with her husband, Ted, and daughters at her bedside.
“She had done a lot of fighting on a lot of fronts,” said Ted, who stayed home from his job as a financial planner to care for her the past several weeks. A longtime mental health counselor, Colleen served as executive director of the Nebraska Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She was quoted in news articles about public policy and spoke at a governor's bill-signing ceremony in 2004.
The next year she noticed tremors in her hands. She stepped away from her career after she was diagnosed with Parkinson's in September 2005.
She stayed active with exercise, including tai chi, yoga and noncontact boxing. For a writing course, she penned a poem about her hands, which said in part:
“Muscle memories of tiny movements: holding, bathing, feeding. ... This trembling hand hinted, pointed out new directions, has shaken up my life. Windswept away are career, multi-tasking, any smooth ease. I grieve for speed.”
Now family and friends grieve her death. A prayer service will be held from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday at Creighton Prep, with a funeral Mass at 10:30 a.m. Monday at St. Leo Catholic Church. She donated her body to the Creighton University Medical School.
She was the mother of six: Cristen Claussen, Jenny Knutson and Mary Wellwood of Omaha; Michaela Doyle of Duluth, Minn.; Daniel of Santa Barbara, Calif.; and Jeremiah, who died in 2002 at age 21.
The oldest of eight children who grew up in Omaha, Colleen Haller met Ted Wuebben (pronounced Webben) when they were students at Creighton University. He was a scholarship basketball player.
They married on Feb. 16, 1974, his senior year, just before a Bluejays road trip to California and Hawaii, which doubled as their honeymoon.
The irony is that she was never much of a basketball fan, often bringing a book to their children's high school and college games. Partly relenting, she wrote another poem, calling herself “a late-in-life convert, and lukewarm at best; I come in loyalty to my family's convictions.”
As a counselor, she often took late-night calls at home from people suffering from mental-health problems. She worked at times with Community Alliance, the Stephen Center and the Boys Town National Hotline.
She was comfortable, her family said, talking to homeless people or business leaders. And she kept a sense of humor.
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Speaking to a 2011 luncheon of elected officials, medical researchers and civic leaders at Happy Hollow Club, she drew a big opening laugh.
She had awakened in the middle of the night, she said, with a burst of ideas for her talk — and jotted them down as they flowed quickly from her mind. She went back to sleep, arose in the morning and confidently reached for her notepad.
Her writing was so illegible, she said, that she couldn't read it.
The Wuebbens years ago would flood their patio in the winter so their children could learn to skate. After her diagnosis, they noted that Michael J. Fox was a skater — and so they started an all-night Parkinson's skating fundraiser in their backyard.
Two years ago, the 24-hour event moved to the outdoor rink at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Though weakening, Colleen made three trips to last month's fundraiser.
In recent days, Ted said, she could barely talk — a whisper at most. But someone mentioned their hot tub at home Monday afternoon, and she brightened. She donned a swimsuit and was helped into the tub.
When a visitor asked how she felt, she responded in a suddenly clear voice: “Magnificent!”
Family members delighted in that, believing that she had lived life and fought her battles magnificently. For all that Parkinson's tried to take, one said, she never willingly gave an inch.
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