The Queen of Savannah Bridge

Donna Heinsbroek

© Copyright 2016 by Donna Heinsbroek

Honorable Mention--2016 Biographical Nonfiction

Editor's note:  Donna died on May 5, 2016.  She was a beautiful writer and a brave one.

Poster by Anthony Mmoh for Laura's memorial event.

My personal journey started at the Cancer Pavilion with a quiet and shy woman whom I recognized from our bridge club. She was the best female bridge player for many years in Savannah and her name was Lura McKinney. I learned that we were both fighting the same Stage IV colon cancer and we also shared the same doctor, George Negrea. Lura's colon cancer had metastasized into her lungs, liver, and lymph nodes; mine had metastasized to my liver, spleen, and spine.

I was not shy about approaching Lura. When I told her that we had the same cancer, I saw the light go out of her eyes as she said, "I am truly sorry," and I felt she truly was. She didn't go on to say the obvious, which we both knew, but I didn't want to hear - that I was still young and had so much living to do. Instead she just talked about more positive things, and I was happy she did. We talked about our advanced cancer, our fears, our love of family, and the hope we shared that we would be able to survive long enough to benefit from the amazing progress being made in cancer research.

Lura told me she had two sons, Franklin, married to Lisa; and David, married to Nancy. We talked about her precious only grandson, Clark, whom she desperately loved and truly did not want to leave. He was her joy in life, and her eyes lit up every time she spoke about him. I met Clark only once and he was just as remarkable as Lura's description. He had beautiful blond hair and baby blue eyes that shimmered when he spoke. He was very respectful and called me Ma'am whenever he answered a question. I remember hearing a story that Clark came down to the bridge center and sang the National Anthem. There was no shyness in him; only his beautiful voice and his love for Lura.

I could see immediately why Lura loved Clark so intensely, and he easily reciprocated her love. She would drag out his name in two or three syllables, almost as if she forever wanted to keep his name on her lips. She was his GaGa , (he could not say grandmother when he was young); and he was her world.

Lura was one of the first people in the Chemo Ward with whom I became close. Even though we saw each other at the bridge center, we didn't really know one another. The chemo sessions were different. We talked and laughed together. We shared our fears about the cancer inside our bodies and we talked about death. Lura always filled me with positive thoughts which kept me believing that I could continue to fight this awful disease with the same courage and dignity that she had shown. She told me that she did not fear death and neither should I. She often joked that if only we could find two more bridge players in the chemo ward, we could spend those long sessions playing our favorite card game, instead of sleeping or sitting there watching the minutes slowly tick by. I always told her that when our cancer was in remission, we would go down and ring the bell in the lobby of the Pavilion together - furiously and joyously.

On the days I came into the chemo ward and saw Lura sleeping and snoring softly, I would tip-toe in and kiss her on her cheek. She would look up with these unbelievably kind and sleepy eyes and say "Donna, I was hoping you would be here today."

Unfortunately, I only knew Lura the person with cancer; I met her a year and a few months after her diagnosis and she was already heading towards the end of her valiant fight. Cancer had clearly taken its toll on her. She had little resemblance to the photograph of her I had seen online in our Unit 202 bridge newsletter.

There have been many complimentary things said about Lura. She was an ethical player who was always gracious. She played with many partners and everyone who remembers her said that she never said an unkind word. Ever! Amazingly she would do well, regardless of the skill (or lack of skill) of her partner. Lura found a way to make her partner's mistake, her mistake. She would always have a smile that would brighten her beautiful face.

According to Lura's son, Franklin, Lura was no stranger to tragedy. Her eldest son John (Johnny) Allan McKinney Jr., was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 12, and passed away at the tender age of 13. Lura was devastated by his passing, but knew she had to be strong for her two remaining sons. Lura was diagnosed with bladder cancer around 2001 or 2002, which she survived. In 2009, Lura's brother, Van, passed away from leukemia and Lura's mother passed away from colon cancer when she was eighty-nine.

Lura started playing bridge when she was about twelve years old. She was about 200 points shy of attaining the rank of diamond life master within the American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) which was quite an achievement.

Lura was known as 'The Voice of Reason' at business meetings, because of the respect and high esteem in which she was held. She was named a Goodwill Ambassador for Bridge in 2014 and received a standing ovation and thunderous applause when her nomination was announced at our sectional game in Savannah.

But Lura also had a fun side to her as related in a story from her very close friend. They had gone on a cruise of the Caribbean and were having a great time. When they got dressed for bed time, Lura's friend dared her to "moon” someone from their cabin window. Lura said "No way" and told her friend that she didn't have the guts to do it. Lura's friend pulled up her night dress and placed her "bare necked behind" against the window. When she looked down, there were people looking up and pointing in her direction. They fell on the beds, and possibly rolled under them, and just laughed until they cried.

It was an amazing and unexpected privilege for me to spend time with Lura away from the bridge table. In competitions you don't get a chance to know your opponents. You have to play your boards within a certain amount of time, which does not allow much time for socializing.

About a year after we met, Lura's medication stopped being effective against the cancer inside her body. The cancer had started to mutate and became stronger. Lura had to go to the second or third line of therapy. It was successful initially, but became ineffective about a year later.

I remember Lura giving me the news in the kitchen of the Savannah Bridge Center and I was so distraught. I just held her and hugged her so tightly. We both knew what that meant, but we felt it was better left unsaid. Shortly thereafter, it was announced at the club that Lura had begun hospice care. She had started on the slippery slope that no one wanted to see her go down.

I went to Lura's house a few weeks before I left for a regional tournament in Augusta. Lura was supposed to be honored at that Regional, but her body had already begun to shut down. She was not eating, and her sister, Inez, had come from Mississippi a few months earlier to stay with her and attend to her needs until the very end.

On my last visit with Lura, I remember how elegant she looked in her beautiful satin pajama suit. As I went to say goodbye, I hugged Lura and felt only her bones. She was very fragile; literally starving to death. I whispered in Laura's ear and told her that she was in God's hands now. I didn't know how religious she was so I tried to give her comfort by telling her that her memory would be permanently engraved in the hearts of her sister, her sons and their wives, as well as her precious grandson, Clark.

There were many other friends who truly loved and respected her. She had touched so many lives. I thanked her for her beautiful spirit and the times she spent helping me adjust to my Stage IV diagnosis.

Lura passed away quietly on November 7, 2014 around 6:00 a.m. Her sister, Inez, was right there beside her when she died. Their relationship was, of course, the longest of all the others that Lura had made in life; they were sisters, born just a few years apart. In their later years, they had become very close. They went on trips together and would vacation at each other's home. They were together long before the children or the grandson came into the picture. They loved one another deeply and it was only appropriate that Inez would be by her sister's side until the very end.

This story was told to me by those who were with Lura the day before she died. David's wife, Nancy, was gently holding Lura in the bed, when suddenly, frail Lura sat straight up, and firmly grabbed both of Nancy arms and went into the sign of the cross. Reportedly, in a loud and strong voice, Lura said "God is real, God is real, God is real." Then she quoted a passage from the King James version of the Bible (KJV)...."He that believeth on me, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water." Inez was certain that Lura did not know that verse from John 7:38 and everyone in the room felt it was not Lura's weak voice that had spoken those words. The voice was powerful and clear; but according to them, the words did come out of Lura's mouth.

Lura's funeral was attended by approximately 150 people consisting of her family, her many friends and those who loved and admired her. Unfortunately, I was away on travel which made it impossible for me be there.

People have often commented to me that I seem so positive in light of my severe diagnosis. Very few of them, if any, realize that Lura was the angel who guided me, and helped me smile when I really wanted to cry.

I have a feeling of emptiness whenever I walk into the Chemo Ward and I see Lura's recliner against the wall. She always sat in that same chair for every visit. I really believe that Lura is somewhere out there, watching over me, and encouraging me in my fight against this horrible disease.

I will miss you Lura Chaney McKinney, but I will never forget you and your presence in my life. When you find two more bridge players in heaven, please grab a convention card and save me a seat.

Donna Heinsbroek, a native Washingtonian, is a retired Foreign Service Specialist, having served 35 years in the government, almost 30 of those years within the U.S. Foreign Service. She has served extensively throughout Africa and the Middle East. Donna has worked at the White House during the first Bush Administration as Executive Assistant to Dr. Richard N. Haass, former Special Assistant to the President on Middle East Affairs and current President of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Because of her work at the White House during the Gulf War in the early 1990’s, Donna was invited by Ambassador Saud Nasir al-Sabah, the then Kuwaiti Ambassador to the United States, to accompany him on the first freedom flight to liberate Kuwait.

In 1995, Donna was honored as “Secretary of the Year,” a State Department Award which is given yearly within the Foreign Service. In 2000, Donna was appointed as the Coordinator for Office Management Specialists, an Ombudsman position created by the Director General of the Foreign Service to oversee issues pertaining to the over 800 Foreign Service Specialists.

Most recently before her retirement, Donna worked as the Executive Assistant to the U.S. Ambassador in both Angola and Zimbabwe. It was during her latter assignment that Donna met Dr. Hans Heinsbroek, the then Dutch Ambassador to Zimbabwe. They have five grown children – two from his previous marriage and three from hers.

Donna played Double A softball in Washington, D.C. and is an accomplished amateur tennis player. She has won the American Tennis Association (ATA) Mixed Doubles National 35's Championships, and was runner-up in the ATA Singles 40's Championships the following year. She has also won several National Tennis Championships in singles, mixed doubles and ladies doubles while living overseas.

Donna is an enthusiastic Bridge player, winning the 2014 Mini-McKenney Award Nationally in her Strata by accruing 402.35 master points in one year. Donna is a Bridge Life Master and a lifetime member of the Aileen Osofsky ACBL National Goodwill Committee.

Contact Donna's Husband

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher