Children point to mother's strength, even as she wages daily battle for survival
by: jim Clark, Terri O'Neill, center, in white, is No. 1 on the list for a heart transplant at Oregon Health & Science University. Shown with her are, from left, daughters Melissa Dickinson, Emily Stickley and Ashley Polston, who is holding granddaughter Caitlyn Stickley.

Terri O'Neill celebrated her first Mother's Day in 1980, days after giving birth to daughter Emily.

Eight months later, 'gut problems' sent her to the doctor, where two liver biopsies suggested liver disease.

'They told me I'd better get my affairs in order, since I probably wouldn't make it six months,' O'Neill recalled. 'That meant I wouldn't live to see my daughter's first birthday.'

For more than 30 years, O'Neill, 56, has lived with a life-threatening heart condition. Atrial fibrillation, congestive heart failure and cardiomyopathy render the petite but spunky brunette short of breath and, at times, shorter on energy.

Simply waking up each morning is a gift to this Gresham resident, who is currently No. 1 on the heart transplant list at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.

Yet despite a heart that struggles to function, O'Neill has danced at two of her daughters' weddings, witnessed the births of two granddaughters and serves as daily inspiration to friends and her four exceptional daughters.

To them, every day is Mother's Day.

O'Neill was diagnosed with post-partum cardiomyopathy, congestive heart failure and a congenital heart defect in 1981.

During open-heart surgery, doctors discovered an undetected illness at some point had infected the pericardium, or sac of fluid around O'Neill's heart, and found a defect in one of her heart's upper chambers. They repaired the silver dollar-size hole and implanted a pacemaker to regulate her heartbeat.

For the next 25 years, O'Neill lived a normal, healthy life.

She gave birth to three more daughters, Jessica, Melissa and Ashley, and after several years as a single parent, married Mark O'Neill in 1998.

But in 2005, during emergency surgery, doctors removed three blood clots caused by what was diagnosed as atrial fibrillation, congestive heart failure and cardiomyopathy.

O'Neill survived on multiple medications to regulate her heart for three years. Another procedure to repair the pericardium in June 2008 at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota caused O'Neill's heart to stop twice, leaving her in a drug-induced coma and hooked to a machine doing the work of her heart.

O'Neill had always told her girls that throughout their lives, no matter what happened, they would always have each other.

Suddenly tested, they took turns sitting with their mother, rubbing her feet and even painting her toenails.

But a saved cell-phone message comforted them in a way their mother couldn't.

'It was either Emily or Jessie who had a voicemail from Mom,' said Melissa, 27. 'It was a typical message from her - 'Hi, it's me. Just wanted to see what's new.' We played it over and over again just to hear her voice.'

Three weeks later, O'Neill left the hospital. Six weeks after that, on Aug. 16, 2008, she took her place as mother-of-the-bride at Melissa's wedding.

'We didn't know if she was going to be there,' Melissa said. 'She was weak, but she was able to dance a little.'

O'Neill's fortitude and determination to play the hand she's been dealt has been an inspiration to her daughters. Lessons learned at their mother's knee are real-life and serve as a model to follow in their own lives.

'She has stood by me through everything,' said Emily, 32. 'I got married young, pregnant young and whenever something goes wrong, she's always the first one I call. She's always been an example to me, because I've learned if she can get through all she's been through and then, with a heart transplant, I can do anything.'

Jessica, 29, who lives in Las Vegas with her husband, credits her mother's ability to accept things at face value, without passing judgment, as the foundation for their close relationship.

'I know people who have to hide things from their mothers,' she said. 'But we don't have to do that with her. No matter how many mistakes we make, she always accepts us for who we are. Nothing we do ever disappoints her.'

O'Neill has also shown her daughters how to cope with adversity without wallowing in self-pity, Melissa said.

'I had to have kidney stone surgery a few weeks ago,' Melissa explained. 'Here I was, shaking and scared for this everyday, simple surgery. Then I thought of my mom and what's she's going through, and it put everything in perspective.'

It's been said that a mother holds her children's hands for a while, but their hearts forever. For Terri O'Neill's daughters, holding their mom's hand any day is a blessing.

'Mother's Day is special for everyone, to call their mom or spend the day with her,' Emily said. 'With our family, what we've been through, every day is special. You have to remember to say 'I love you' because you never know.'

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