We can't know everything about raising a child until we've had that experience. Only then do we know how to parent, and even then, we don't know how to handle every situation with every child. And there will always be regrets and "what-ifs" involved when tragedy strikes in our lives.
Gary & Terri Oesterle had a beautiful baby girl on May 8, 1989, and like every good Mom, she wanted the best of everything for her child. But now and then, we let one slip through the cracks ... we that is, as a society.
Recognizing the signs of depression and addiction is not always obvious until a traumatic event occurs. Only then do you look back and see its progression. Only then, unless you are a professional, does it add up. And Terri's beautiful daughter was, in hindsight, caught up in the perfect storm.
Terri describes her daughter as a humble, compassionate, and caring young woman - a leader who stood up for others, never judging a soul. "Anyone who knew Chelsea knew what a great kid she was- not a troubled child by any measure. She was well-rounded, involved in sports, Girl Scouts, music and more, all of her life."
We hear stories of overweight and awkward kids getting bullied, but in this case, it was for opposite reasons. This beautiful girl was targeted by upperclassmen from her freshman year in high school, and when she was a sophomore, she was physically attacked. It was a planned attack which others were invited to see. Some of the invited were 18 years old and did nothing to stop it. A parent was even aware of it and did not stop it.
Though the experience shattered her, she didn't press charges for fear of retaliation and found the courage to return to high school, determined to graduate with her class. After graduation, she moved in with her father while she attended ICC. But again, life took a turn when police broke into her dad's home, just months after graduation and found a controlled substance. Unfortunately, police found it necessary to arrest Chelsea, though she had nothing to do with it and no charges were filed.
Terri doesn't want this experience to be forgotten as, in her words, "We have much awareness to raise from bullying prevention to reducing the stigma and shame associated with mental health issues such as depression/anxiety, eating disorders & addiction, the root causes that affected her, with the hope of saving another young life- as Chelsea would have done."
Chelsea had been using alcohol for seven years before the effects of it began to appear. Now working in the field of addiction, Terri greatly understands the signs of addiction. Chelsea made the decision to enter detox when she was 19 for 28 days. Terri elaborated, "It wasn't enough. The lack of support, denial and a therapist's by-the¬ book advice to let her 'hit rock bottom' all contributed to her further decline."
"Chelsea sought medical help three times, presenting severe physical symptoms in hopes of entering a detox unit, only to be sent home by her GI specialist with anti-anxiety and pain meds. Within days, I felt her symptoms warranted hospitalization and after calling the doctor to report her symptoms hadn't changed, and I was again discouraged from taking her to ER. I then insisted the physician meet us there for a better understanding of her treatment under his care. Upon arrival, we were told the shocking news, she was in double organ failure with a 10% chance of survival without a transplant. Terri and her family were also told she would have to wait six months to be added to the organ transplant list because of her admittance to her addiction. There was also the possibility that she may have had an underlying illness that we will never know of. They were testing for everything they could think of by the time she was transferred to Chicago; cancer, auto-immune disease, and others. There was speculation that she may have had other internal issues that were overlooked. Terri said after ten days in ICU, the next unfortunate decision was made. Chelsea was put on a non-acute floor, and Terri was encouraged to go home.
"A family member told the nurse repeatedly that Chelsea kept saying, 'I can't breathe.” The nurse said she would have to wait and that she had a call into the doctor. She coded within minutes and was intubated for the next 9 days, losing her only chance for survival- a life-saving transplant during this most critical time; we believe" Terri explained. Finally, during her six-week hospitalization, Chelsea acquired an infection they called a spontaneous bacterial infection, - thus completing this tragically, a perfect storm.
Terri reflected, "Ironically, I sent her to Northwestern in hopes of an organ transplant ... her last chance for survival. The feeling of helplessness was not unlike the 'John Q' drama, as at one point I nearly begged for a transplant. The 6-month arbitrary rule was followed even though she didn't have that kind of time. So, they transferred her to the Rehab Institute of Chicago - and she was back in two days, by ambulance." Chelsea fought with all of her might to get strong during these two days. We were told the devastating news; she had a 50 percent chance of surviving the infection. There were no words for this day as we waited.
Her boyfriend, Matt, never left her side. She had a positive attitude and prayed continually with her Mother. She arrested and fell into a coma as the transplant team rushed to her side. The neurologist delivered the most devastating news of all and Terri & her family had to make the absolute unthinkable decision to remove life support. We will never be the same without her. She was a beautiful and talented young woman.
Terri added, "Addiction is a disease like any other life-threatening illness, and it certainly contributed to her extensive disease. We cannot know all the contributors to her illness, however, again, further testing could not be completed before she acquired the infection."
Chelsea wanted to get healthy and be free of the addiction that took a tight grip on her at such a young age, Terri said, "Stigma played a role in her medical care, though she had many caring and compassionate doctors and nurses, some forever touched by her. Some doctors believed she would pull out of it because she was young and strong.
Chelsea’s sister, Taylor, told her Mother months after her passing of their very private conversation in which Chelsea confided that if she did not survive this, she wanted riders at her funeral. She had a passion for riding from her father. When Terri learned of it, she immediately organized a memory ride the first year, with a great turnout & a most moving day.
Now almost four years after her passing, Terri has been advocating for these mental health issues that greatly affect our youth today. The Hult Center for Healthy Living has allowed her the platform to tell Chelsea’s story in a program called “Youth Mental Health Matters” YMHM, a collaboration of Hult, the Center for Prevention of Abuse and Unity Pointes’ Behavioral Health that offers a much needed program in our area schools and beyond to provide mental health education & awareness on a variety of topics including: depression, anxiety, bullying, cyber-bullying, eating disorders, addiction, coping skills & much more. They’re in their second year of the program. Terri’s connection to Hult is one that she believes is a force of nature as some things just fall into place when you’re working for the greater good.
As the anniversary of Chelsea's passing approaches, the now first annual “benefit” ride is being planned. This ride is to raise awareness with proceeds going to the Hult Center for Healthy Living in Peoria, IL. This is a wonderful non -profit that does so much for our students and beyond in teaching healthy lifestyles, as well as a great resource for our community.
The term “Live Loud” for the ride as well as her advocacy came to be with a tattoo written in Cherokee on Chelsea's left foot this was her mantra. It has come to have great meaning today. Terri will continue her legacy by raising awareness and carrying out her motto...