Joanne O'Hara knows life's difficulties. So did her father, a native of Poland who was imprisoned by Nazi Germany for five years. In 1948, he came to America for freedom. Then his wife fell ill for years, leaving child-rearing to him.

With that background, Mrs. O'Hara knew how to respond when a doctor suggested that she abort her daughter, Deirdre ("Dee"), who has Down syndrome.

"The doctors were concerned this pregnancy would affect my health," she recalled. "What surprised me was what was said next: how I already have three children; do I want to abort?"

Later, the doctor asked her husband, Tim, if they would keep a child who had disabilities.

"My husband spoke right up and said, 'We want this child, no matter what,'" said Mrs. O'Hara. "I was relieved to hear him say it first. The doctor wasn't pleased with our decision, and his dismay was felt throughout my pregnancy."

Mrs. O'Hara thought of her father's difficulties: "When I asked my dad how he survived five years in a prison camp, he responded, 'God put me there for a reason, to teach me something.' This helped me understand how to endure Deirdre's diagnosis."

Around the same time, Mrs. O'Hara read about a British physician who was sued for delivering a child with disabilities and had to pay for the child's care for life. Mrs. O'Hara said to her OB-GYN, "No one knows why this happens. How can a doctor be responsible?"

The doctor shook her hand in gratitude.

When Dee was two, she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Mrs. O'Hara remembers asking God, "What are you trying to teach me?" Her other children wondered if their sister was going to die. Mrs. O'Hara told them, "No one knows when God will call us home. God loves Dee very much, and God wants to know if we love Dee."

But Mrs. O'Hara was also questioning: "Was there something I did or did not do during my pregnancy, and she will need to live with this consequence? How will Tim react? How shall I share this with my older children?

"I did a lot of soul-searching."

Mrs. O'Hara felt her late father's presence, "reminding me what he drummed into me from my childhood: 'Joanne, do you know better than God?'

"There is a reason Dee is who she is," she concluded. "Thank God Dad raised me not to think about myself, but [to ask], 'What is God's purpose for me and what am I being called to do now?'"

The entire O'Hara clan pitched in to help Dee. "From the beginning," Mrs. O'Hara noted, "our older children were so loving and accepting. I thank God Tim was so supportive."

Dee, who is now 19, survived her leukemia. Her oncologist credited Dee's "determination and fighting spirit," Mrs. O'Hara remembered. "Dee thought all two-year-olds go through this."

Looking back on Dee's difficulties, Mrs. O'Hara realized that "all of my being was tested. I was putty in God's hands. The two great pieces of advice Dee's oncologist gave us was that a child's illness may break up a marriage and that her illness will show us who we can count on."

The O'Hara family has volunteered in their various parishes as they moved with Mr. O'Hara's job changes. He retired from GE Research and now runs O'Hara Consulting LLC, a management consulting firm. The family attends St. Madeleine Sophie parish in Schenectady.

Dee has been right there with them. "The Wednesday faith-sharing prayer group loves Dee unconditionally," Mrs. O'Hara said. "How much I appreciate their acceptance of her! They are my greatest support." As she has grown, Dee has become more involved at church. She has ushered with her father, made her First Communion, sung in the children's and youth choirs, and been confirmed. She now sings in the adult choir alongside her mother.

Dee also interns at a Hannaford grocery store. The managers told her mother that Dee is part of the store's family. Dee even assists the St. Joseph Marian Center in Altamont; her parents lead the Albany Division of the World Apostolate of Fatima ministry (Our Lady's Blue Army).

Mrs. O'Hara describes Dee as "a true gift from God. Her unconditional love is contagious and a gift to model how love overcomes all."

Asked what she would tell parents who are considering aborting a child with disabilities, Mrs. O'Hara replied, "I don't see Dee as 'special needs.' I never raised her as handicapped. I treated her as a normal child. When her Down syndrome interfered with her daily duties, I helped her overcome those obstacles with prayer and tools like sign language."

Dee's mom also realizes that "it isn't she who is handicapped; it is I who am handicapped. She makes me aware of my potential and encourages me to strive to the perfection of who God made me to be."