Teresa, No Ordinary Hero

teresa4Teresa, No Ordinary Hero

When I first met Teresa it was during a job interview near Washington, DC. She was the Operations Manager leading a team of inquisitors on their quest for finding the right Managing Director for their technical staffing firm. Questions fired away, answers were delivered and it became clear to me that the reason I wanted to work for this company had almost everything to do with Teresa.
She sparkled. She was the competitive, athletic type, driven with intelligence, style and humor. She was a bit of a perfectionist and certainly knew where the company was headed and what it needed to succeed. What impressed me most, in that first meeting with her was her forthright honesty. One by one, she laid all the cards on the table insuring there would be no surprises later. It was her trademark. She was also a spunky one. Full of fire, she would fight, when necessary, for what she believed in and rarely, if ever, did she back down. She had the gift of being able to skillfully work with some of the most difficult people I’ve ever met. The staff that reported to her trusted her. We worked well together, learning much from each other and having many discussions concerning life philosophies over….shall I say it….a few glasses of wine after work. She always seemed to have too many headaches which we decided was her way of processing stress.

As life would have it, our time there together was short. I returned to New York to care for my elderly mother who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Teresa remained in Northern Virginia temporarily. For a brief period of time we lost track of each other, each being busy with our own stuff until one day, three months after we had tearfully hugged each other goodbye, I received a devastating, life changing e-mail from her.

Still in Northern Virginia, Teresa had just begun a new position at a very promising company. She was pleased by this new career opportunity and life seemed to be offering exciting possibilities for her future. Yet there was another, greater plan already in place. On her second day of employment and without warning Teresa experienced a massive seizure, followed by four others within 45 minutes. She told me later that she didn’t know what was happening to her and in her fear she began banging on her desk for help. By the time staff members arrived she had begun to regain her composure when another seizure and another and another took over her body and her speech. She said she was completely terrorized as she felt bile coming up through her throat. Teresa knew she was dying and she was only 43 years old. She was taken immediately to a local hospital where she seized again in the emergency room waiting to be seen.

CT scans, MRIs and a brain biopsy confirmed Teresa had a cancerous brain tumor, Astro 3, known as a fast growing brain cancer. Doctors explained to Teresa that it had begun to grow in her brain 10 years previously. Normally the message from the brain would have been for the cells to stop growing, however, in this case, the cells continued to grow as if she were carrying a baby in her head. The messages are carried through the DNA and this is why, without a miracle, the tumor will grow back again. Initially she was set up for a craniotomy; however, because of the location of the tumor, and the strong possibility of her being paralyzed on her left side, the doctors in Virginia refused to perform the surgery at the last moment. In her forthright way, Teresa made an instant decision as only she could do, to immediately move back to Seattle where she had originally come from. She had previously worked at the University Washington Medical Center for 18 years and still had connections there.

Teresa said as her family members and friends began to arrive in Virginia and she began packing up her belongings, a million thoughts and emotions went through her mind. The first was denial that any of this was actually happening and couldn’t be fixed, then raging anger that she was too young to die and, “Why me? Why now?” In her heart, she knew her time was short. She couldn’t live alone and was going to be forced to live with her mother who would have to feed her and help her do the most basic activities. She could no longer drive and her fierce independence had just been ruthlessly taken from her. She was headed directly into an abyss of the unknown. Teresa was about to enter major upheaval to include intensive surgery and loss of a lucrative career she had spent her entire life building. She grieved as she had to give away her beloved cats that she loved and were as children to her. Suddenly and without proper notice, Teresa had lost all control over her life and now she found herself just trying to survive one moment at a time.

Upon arrival in Washington, Teresa immediately met with Dr. Silbergeld at UWMC. After another array of tests had been completed, surgery was performed successfully removing 75% of the tumor and leaving 25% which had become intertwined with the motor strip in her brain. The tumor was then classified as Oligodendroglimo which gave her the possibility of living for five more years, but first, 27 rounds of radiation. They would save chemo for later if necessary.

The radiation experience was the next complicated phase to be dealt with. A mask of Teresa’s face was created by molding material to her skin. She was instructed not to move during this process. Once the mask had dried, which took two days, lines and dots were drawn to tell the machine exactly where to point the radiation. Those points were already matched in the computer. Every day, Monday through Friday for seven weeks Teresa would go in and lie perfectly still for 30 minutes while she listened to this robotic machine moving about her head making all sorts of sounds. Every ten minutes or so, technicians would move the computer to another location. They were shooting her with radiation in three different locations. It was a delicate procedure, trying to avoid the motor strip area that controlled movement in her body. The treatments made her very ill and she found it exhausting to go back there every day. Yet, if she wanted to extend her life, she had no other choice but to continue. It was Teresa’s step father who patiently took her to UWMC for treatments every day. Many are not as fortunate to have private transportation and must seek public means.

While going through this necessary torture, Teresa told me she had met a young man who had the same type and stage of cancer as she did. They had received the same treatments. She happened to see him just recently. He had experienced a bleed out and she could barely recognize him. He was confined to a wheel chair. There would be no more radiation, no more chemo, no more opportunities to extend his life, just confinement in a wheel chair until it was all over. While she was deeply saddened by the condition he was in, she realized Spirit had given her a gift of life, for however long it was, she still had some time left to accomplish goals she had created.

Only those who have experienced this horrendous disease can fully appreciate the fear, the torturous treatments and the devastation that wreaks havoc on the mind and the body. The hours of agony physically and emotionally seem to consume every waking moment and every ounce of energy.

Yet at the same time, another form of torture was taking place. Teresa, fighting for her life, without any form of income whatsoever, was being denied by Social Security for benefits. The original disability adjustor approved her claim; however the case was pulled for Q&A. It was stated she was being denied until they could gather further medical evidence. They already had all the medical records, test results, treatments and doctor’s statements. She became lost in a system of ridiculous governmental red tape that only recognized her as a number and another expense. Teresa had terminal cancer. Eventually she was going to die from this disease. In the preceding months she had experienced seizures, biopsies, a craniotomy, 27 rounds of radiation, lost her hair, lost her dignity, was experiencing short term memory loss, anxiety, depression and extreme exhaustion. She could not work and she desperately needed support from the very system she had already paid over $70,000 to in Social Security taxes, yet it eluded her as if she were a stranger from another planet.

Remember, Teresa is a fighter and she was not about to let this situation rest. She wrote to Senator Murray, Congressman Reichert and Senator Ted Kennedy, who himself, had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor. She received the standard replies from all however, it was Congressman Reichert who really followed through for her. Because of his efforts, Teresa finally received her Social Security benefits payments but still no medical coverage. During this time her Cobra has been exhausted and she currently continues to pay a substantial amount for insurance each month out of her Social Security allotment. She will not qualify for Medicaid until 2010.

All of this seems more than one should ever have to bear. For those of us who have not been exposed to this on a personal level, we should be extremely thankful. Perhaps Spirit allows us to observe such atrocities so in our gratitude we can reach out to others who struggle to survive.

In the midst of all the fear, all the anger and all the unnecessary chaos, something beautiful took place within Teresa’s spirit. I asked my friend what had happened and she explained it to me like this. She said, “I realized I could live my life to the fullest and take back some control or remain angry at life. I also acknowledged that I have been blessed in many ways. My family and friends have surrounded me with love and endless support. My brother has continuously stepped in on countless occasions to personally take care of my financial matters. I cannot imagine how terrible it could have been without him. Every day, really, I still have time to be with my soul mate, the one I had waited for, for so many years.” They reunited when she moved back to Washington for treatment and share a loving home together. She said he was her rock. During this time she was also able to renew old friendships she’d lost somehow on her journey. “I’ve been given the gift of time and have been allowed to heal old sorrows and relationships of the past. I’ve accepted that I’m going to die. I cry at times when I think of not being with my loved ones as they go on without me, of not being able to share holidays or even just having the opportunity to come and go. Yet when this occurred, I told myself, I have loved, I have been loved and I still have time left to make a difference.”

Teresa had always wanted to go to Italy for as long as she could remember. When she was first diagnosed and realized she had less than five years to live, she cashed in her retirement, paid off all her bills and planned a trip to Italy. She spent one month in Tuscany with friends and family visiting at various times. It had been something she’d always wanted to do but had never had the time. She always had to work and couldn’t really afford it. These excuses no longer had any merit for her. She realized she had to live her life as if each day could be her last. There would not be much time left to create memories. In retrospect, she says she wouldn’t have traded one moment of that trip. It was healing for her soul and as she meditated in the beauty and the love, it was there she found her final purpose.

Teresa made a hero’s decision. In the midst of all her pain and her own personal loss, she wanted to give to those whose lives had been turned upside down as hers had been. She wanted to provide a place to turn to for support when one couldn’t work and found themselves under great financial and mental stress. It became her desire to provide comfort and guidance when there was no relief in sight. A fire rose from within her to give hope to the hopeless. In that one moment in time, Teresa’s heart gave birth to a gift of love for all those who would unfortunately follow her path. In her decision to live life as best she could until it was over, Teresa and dedicated friends who joined her cause, created The Gregorio Foundation, a non-profit organization that would provide guidance and financial assistance to those who were struggling to live with brain cancer. Realizing she has only a short time to make a difference for those she leaves behind, Teresa has dedicated the remainder of her life to those who will follow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATeresa is my hero. She teaches us that no matter how sorrowful our song may be no matter how tragic our circumstances, we still have a song to sing. It begins within us. As long as we have breath, we still have the right and the ability to make our choices. We can accept our lot in life and continue to move on in spite of our challenges or we can simply give up and disappear. Someone once said, “We define ourselves by the fork we take in the road”. Teresa has intentionally given purpose to her journey. In the most trying of circumstances, she has made a commitment to leave something behind for others who find themselves on a similar path.

No matter how long my friend remains on this earth, she has lit a candle whose light will never go out. She will continue to live long after her body has found rest.