Nearly three decades ago, two young girls began to exchange letters, beginning a friendship despite being separated by many miles. Recently the two girls, now in the 40s, met each other in person for …
Nearly three decades ago, two young girls began to exchange letters, beginning a friendship despite being separated by many miles. Recently the two girls, now in the 40s, met each other in person for the first time.
When our daughter, Erica, was in the fifth grade, her teacher assigned her students to write letters introducing themselves and send them to schools in other states to see if they would be answered. Erica followed the teacher’s directions and found a town in southern Illinois, addressed her letter to a fifth-grade girl and mailed it.
When the letter arrived at the Illinois school, the teacher put it on her bulletin board and suggested that some of her students might like to answer it. One girl, Lena, did write a letter in return, beginning years of correspondence with Erica.
Most pen pal relationships fade away after a few letters, but something made Erica and Lena continue to write. The two girls kept in touch, and despite the distance between them, their letters blossomed into a friendship. Even after email and Facebook began to replace the postal service, they sometimes still wrote letters, and the long-distance friendship continued into adulthood. They often talked of meeting somewhere, but the opportunity never came — until this year.
Early in their correspondence, Erica learned that Lena was born with congenital heart disease, a condition that describes a number of birth defects affecting the heart. Her condition was diagnosed when she was 4 months old, and she spent the next four months at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. Though she was deemed well enough to go home, her childhood was marked by weakness and frequent illness. Her circulation was poor, so her fingers and lips were often blue or purple. Because of her appearance, other children often teased, bullied or ostracized her.
Her life changed when she was 14. She underwent open-heart surgery to correct a defect to her heart’s right ventricle that was inhibiting the flow of blood to her body. When she woke up in the intensive care unit after the surgery, her father held her hand up so she could see that her fingertips were no longer blue, but a healthy pink. She says it is one of her fondest memories of her childhood.
The surgery made Lena feel normal for the first time, and she tried to put her illness behind her. Unfortunately, though, if you have congenital heart disease, you are never fixed or cured, and she subsequently underwent two more open-heart surgeries to correct other defects and remove scar tissue.
Since then, Lena has dedicated herself to raising awareness of congenital heart disease and helping those who suffer from it. She became active with the American Congenital Heart Association (ACHA), and now is a senior ambassador for the organization, supervising about 20 other ambassadors in the Midwest. She organizes efforts in support of the Washington University Adult Congenital Heart Disease Program through Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s Hospitals in St. Louis, and has made five trips to Congress to support the Congenital Heart Futures Act, a measure that approves research into the disease.
Among her other activities, Lena works with the St. Louis Cardinals for one game at Busch Stadium each year, Congenital Heart Day. The event helps raise awareness of congenital heart disease and raises money to support programs of the ACHA. The event has taken place for nine consecutive years.
This year, the event offered Erica and Lena a chance to get together at last. The school year in Rochester, Minnesota, where Erica teaches, ended earlier this year than it had traditionally ended. So Erica, her husband and their two children had a free weekend so they could make the drive down to St. Louis for the Cardinals’ game with the Chicago Cubs and the Congenital Heart Day observance.
Both Erica and Lena admitted to be a little nervous about the meeting, wondering if they would even like each other, but there was no need to have worried. The long years of meeting on paper had built a strong friendship, and they connected instantly. And there was a bonus. Lena’s friends and associates in the work of the ACHA became instant friends as well. They all recognized Erica as “the pen pal who wrote all those letters” and made her feel like a celebrity. Her kids came in for their share of attention, too, and one woman in particular made them laugh, and her husband enjoyed the weekend as well. The kids, who are about the age Erica was when she wrote that first letter, no doubt came away with a deeper understanding of the struggle some people have simply to live a normal life.
When the weekend was over, the two women promised each other they would get together again, and Erica is already looking at a future conference in Minneapolis as a possible time they can get together. Even if that doesn’t work out, though, I’m sure the friendship — thanks to that trip to watch a baseball game — is stronger than ever, and the letters will continue. And it all began with a fifth-grade teacher’s assignment.
Next time, I hope Karen and I will have a chance to meet our daughter’s remarkable friend, Lena Morsch.