The moment I saw the quirky teapot and cup on the shelf in the floral and gift shop Petals on Main Street, Pittston, I knew it wasn’t going to stay there for long. It was coming with me. Shop owner Natalie Kearney did it up in festive wrappings, as only she can, and I left filled with anticipation of the smile this would put on my friend Katie’s pretty face.
Not so much that Katie is a tea lover, although she is, but that the inscription on the cup seems to have been written especially for her. “Shoes are always on her mind,” it reads.
Shoes, you see, actually are always on Katie’s mind. That’s because to Katie, shoes represent something else that’s always on her mind: surviving.
And not just any shoes. High heels. The higher the better.
Katie was wearing heels, the kind they call “stilettos,” with her jeans the day I first met her. She lingered after a writing class at the community college to tell me that, although she prayed it would never happen, I might be called upon to save her life. Then she flipped open the top of what I had thought was a purse slung over her shoulder to reveal a futuristic-looking device of buttons and lights. She explained it was controlling an IV pump delivering medication through a tube inserted into the middle of her chest. “If I pass out,” she said matter-of-factly, “push this button and call 9-1-1.”
Katie once wrote a story about the time a cute boy asked her out and when she told him about the tube, which she felt compelled to do, he just made a face and said, “Eeeww.” She never saw him again.
The first days of that semester in September of 2008 marked the beginning of my education about the life-threatening, heart/lung disease Pulmonary Hypertension. Katie Tobias, who had been diagnosed two years earlier, became my teacher. She was 21 at the time.
Among the things Katie taught me about PH, as the disease is often called, is that the only hope for survival is a double lung transplant, often accompanied by a heart transplant. Katie, however, was not yet sick enough to qualify for either.
“You cannot have a transplant until you are sick enough to warrant it, but not so sick that you won’t survive it,” she said, which sounded an awful lot like a classic “Catch 22” to me.
She also told me that PH affects mostly women and those with it are told to plan to stop wearing high heels because the disease will affect their balance. Katie took this as a challenge. She vowed to continue wearing heels no matter what. And she has.
“About the only thing I could control was my shoes,” she says.
As the years rolled on, Katie took classes whenever her health allowed, occasionally having to drop out for a semester or two. But she never gave up. And never gave in. Every time I saw her, she was in heels. Even the day I found her leaning against a wall with her eyes rolling back in her head. Just as I reached for my cell phone, however, she somehow rallied and told me to put it away.
Late one August, Katie sent me an email to say she was enrolled in my advertising class, which started the following week, and wanted to warn me she was now on oxygen 24/7 and didn’t want me making a fuss when I saw her, which I probably would have.
Everything would have been fine, except that Katie showed up late for the first class. The class had been overbooked and when she entered the room, every seat was taken and every eye was upon her. A young lady in the back row jumped up and said, “Here, take my seat,” and Katie, with everyone watching, dragged her oxygen tank down the middle aisle, her high heels clicking on the floor with every step.
The past two years have been hard on Katie emotionally. Three friends she made through her involvement with the Pulmonary Hypertension Association have lost their lives.
Katie graduated last May, 10 years after that first writing class, with an associate’s degree in graphic design and advertising. Though she is unable to hold a job, she has a big dream, a dynamic idea aimed at supporting and empowering people, especially women, in situations similar to hers. This idea is innovative, and exciting, and, unfortunately, expensive to put into motion. Especially for someone with no income.
But Katie has friends and these friends are determined to see her idea through. They’ve started by creating a GoFundMe page designed to raise seed money. To participate, log on to gofundme.com, click on the word “Search” and type in “empowering survivors with unique shoes.” That tag line should come as no surprise. As her tea cup proclaims, shoes are always on Katie’s mind.
By the way, in addition to seed money, finding a lawyer interested in providing Katie with a little pro bono advice wouldn’t hurt either. Send me an email and I’ll put you in touch with her.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blog online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.