Teresa Bilyeu: Portrait of Courage

By Harold Fite

I first met Teresa Bilyeu in the spring of 1983. She and her family moved to Houston from Fresno, California, and became a part of the congregation meeting on Fry Road in Houston, Texas. The primary purpose of the move was to acquire the best possible medical treatment for Teresa. She had a heart defect!

Doctors discovered her heart problem when she was two years old. She was in her dad’s lap with her ear against his chest. “What’s that ticking noise,” she asked. “My heart,” he replied. “Listen to mine,” she urged. He did and it didn’t sound right. Through a series of tests doctors found that she had a heart murmur. A corrective transposition of the great vessels of the right and left ventricle caused the murmur. The right was on the left and the left was on the right.

The right ventricle normally circulates blood to the whole body: the left goes to the lungs. Since these were reversed, the left ventricle had to pump double time to get the blood to the whole body. The right ventricle would be of such force that the lungs could be damaged (blown out). Her mitral valve was also bad. All the doctors could do was to watch it. They could do nothing about the transposition because they didn’t have the technology at that time. This limited her activities. A special Physical Education class had to be provided for her when she started to school.

At 13 years of age she began to take medication for her condition. At age 15 doctors replaced her mitral valve with pig’s valve! This was the closest thing to a human value. From then on she was referred to as “Miss Piggy.”

During the surgery on the mirtral valve, the person on the by-pass machine didn’t get enough blood and oxygen to her left leg  paralyzing it from the knee down. They had to take her back to surgery. She was in the hospital a month taking physical therapy. She underwent two or three surgeries over the next several years so she could walk. Her left foot is two or three sizes smaller than her right one.

She began to experience a problem with the rhythm of her heart. It wouldn’t stay in the right rhythm because of the transposition. She began taking medication to get it back in rhythm, and a couple of times had to undergo electrical shock treatment.

For the next several years her condition leveled out and she was out on her own and did the things 20-year-olds did. Then she started getting sick and could not hold down a job. Medical bills continued to mount, and she had to move back home with her parents.

The family had heard of Dr. Denton Cooley, in Houston, Texas, and moved to Houston to see if he might do something to help Teresa. This was in the spring of 1983 where we began this story. She was in the hospital having work-up done when hurricane Alecia struck. She had the experience of seeing objects fly by her window. She underwent extensive tests and was told she was a candidate for a heart transplant. If no transplant death was inevitable!

It took two years to get a heart. During this period she was in and out of the hospital numerous times. She nearly died three times and passed out several times. Any small exertion would cause her heart rate to go “sky high.” She would sleep 12 hours and be up 12 hours.

Doctor Cooley and his team did the transplant on June 14, 1985. At one time Teresa’s doctors considered a heart/lung transplant, but the force of the right ventricle had not damaged the lungs. The transplant was successful.

Before the transplant the hospital required a guarantee of financial responsibility for the heart rejection medicine. Approximately $38,000 was raised through a special contribution of the members of the Fry Road congregation with pledges up to $50,000. Teresa continues to draw from it.

She has had no major problem until this year. The medication she has been taking to prevent heart rejection has contributed to bone deterioration. After her surgery she was given massive doses of prednisone (they do not do this anymore). One side effect (among many) is deterioration of the bones. After two or three weeks doctors reduced it to a level dose. She has been taking 10 milligrams now for a long time.

She has had surgery for disk problems, and has one gone bad in her neck at the present time. The medication causes headaches, insomnia, restlessness, fluid retention and bone loss. At 33 years of age, she equates her bones with that of a 50-year-old person. Because of bone deterioration doctors have lowered the prednisone to 5 milligrams. It will probably take 2 years for her body to adjust to it.

On occasions when I visited her in the hospital, I was impressed with her knowledge of her condition and the treatments she was receiving. She could tell you all the medications she was taking, and for what purpose, and her body’s reaction to it  all in medical terms. Her knowledge prevented doctors and nurses from making grave and serious mistakes several times. She could speak of her condition and her near-death experiences in a factual and unemotional way.

A father whose son was a candidate for a heart transplant, visited Teresa one day. The son didn’t want the transplant and the father was seeking some help in dealing with his son. Teresa told him, “You must change his mind to where he wants it or he will not make it.” The son refused and he died! “He didn’t have a fighting attitude,” she said. “One thing that kept me going is my stubbornness.” She kept telling herself, “I’ve got to do this.”

This doesn’t mean she never gets tired of it all. “Many times I just get tired of fighting and fighting and fighting,” she said. “I have my `pity parties’ and then, OK, I am done, let’s go on and fight again.”

I have never heard her complain of her lot or sensed any bitterness toward the cruel fate life has dealt her. She has faced her adversity with courage and dignity. Her faith in God is strong. She has maintained her sense of humor. One doctor told her father that if she lived a sedentary life she could possible live for quite some time. With an impish smile she said, “I have doctor’s orders to just sit around.”

There is no “quit” in Teresa. I asked her, “Teresa, with all that you have gone through, if you knew then what you know now, would you have had this transplant.” Without hesitation she said, “Yes.” She explained that there was a door opened for her. To give up and refuse the transplant would be tantamount to suicide. She didn’t think God would be pleased with that. She thought, “If it is my time to go, at least I will have gone down fighting, rather than just giving up.”

Doctors thought that the transplant would extend her life approximately seven years. After seven years, they thought other avenues would be open to them. Her transplanted heart has carried her for nine years, but at the present time those other avenues have not developed. She is now getting to that thin margin: she has problems with her ankles swelling; artery buildup; bone deterioration, etc. She has had too many surgeries for another transplant. “I have this weird instinct,” she said, “that if I see my 45th birthday, I will be lucky.”

Through the grace of God, he enabled her to live until medical technology caught up to give her a heart. Now hopefully medical science will discover a cure soon for Teresa’s ailment. Until then she has no options.

I pray that these feeble words have helped you to know, at least in a measure, Teresa Bilyeu. She is a woman of unflinching courage and strength, and inspiration to us all.

(Note: if you would like to write Teresa, do so in care of this writer.)

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 16, p. 6-7
August 18, 1994