Couple honors late daughter, a friend to dogs
When people remember Teresa Whiteman, their thoughts often wander to her love of man’s best friend.
“You couldn’t talk to Teresa without talking about dogs,” said Debbie Whiteman, Teresa’s stepmother.
As a tribute to their canine-loving daughter, Debbie, and Teresa’s father, Mike, installed a drinking fountain for dogs Wednesday afternoon on the west end of Sherwood Park.
To the untrained eye, the rust-colored structure looks like a piece of functional decoration.
But to those who knew Teresa, the fountain tells a story of optimism, a second chance at life and ultimately, of two lives cut tragically short.
Teresa Lynn Whiteman was born on June 13, 1973, in Grand Junction. She had a congenital heart defect, which doctors called “Transposition of the Main Arteries.” As a result of the defect, her little heart had to pump harder than normal in order to get oxygen to flow throughout her body. The extra exertion of her heart put stress on her lungs, damaging them.
The doctors told her parents that she wouldn’t live more than six months. Those six months came and went, and Teresa was still alive. The doctors told her parents that she wouldn’t live past being a teenager, but those teenage years passed, and Teresa lived on. Teresa continued to sail past every cap the doctors had placed on her life.
This was not to say the road was easy for Teresa. She couldn’t run because of the stress it put on her heart and lungs. By the Christmas of 1993, walking more than a few feet was impossible.
“Her boyfriend had to carry her from the curb to our house,” Debbie explained.
Despite the difficulties she faced, Teresa was never one to complain. “Not once did she say, ‘Why was I born with his?’ She took what she had and worked with it,” Mike said.
Teresa was placed on transplant lists in the hopes of receiving a new heart and a new set of lungs. Mike began reading up on insurance policies, searching for companies that covered the costs of organ transplants. Because his job at the Geological Survey allowed him to choose new health insurance every year, he would jump from company to company, chasing after policies that would cover Teresa’s medical expenses.
“I’d say ‘This company covers kidney transplants,’ so we’d go there,” he said. He eventually found an insurance company that covered both heart and lung transplants.
April 14, 1994, brought both an end and a beginning of sorts.
It was the day 16-year-old Clinton Furu was involved in a car accident in Trinidad that claimed his life.
It was also the day 20-year-old Teresa Whiteman got the call for her new heart and lungs.
‘She finally got to live life’
Teresa drove with her family to University Hospital in Denver to claim her new organs. She went into surgery on April 15, emerging with a new heart and two new lungs. It was the first heart/double-lung transplant done at that hospital, and it was an astounding success.
As she was recovering from the procedure, Clinton’s family drove to meet the girl who had received three of his most vital organs. They wanted to build and maintain a relationship with all 60 people who had received Clinton’s organs.
With her new heart and lungs, Teresa became unstoppable. Two or three weeks after the procedure, she was riding the stationary bicycle in the hospital’s therapy room, Debbie said. Before the operation, she wasn’t able to last for more than a minute on the bike. She went from barely being able to walk to snowboarding, jet skiing and even skydiving. Teresa even competed in the Transplant Olympics in speed-walking, swimming and the softball throw.
“She finally got to live life,” Mike said.
During this time, the bond between Teresa and Clinton’s family grew. She even helped them fulfill a promise they had made to the teenager.
“On (Clinton’s) 21st birthday, his parents took her and her boyfriend to Vegas because they always promised they would take him,” Mike said.
Sixteen years after her first transplant, Teresa’s lungs began to deteriorate, although her heart was still working properly. On April 11, 2010, Teresa went back to the hospital to undergo a second transplant, this time for a single lung. The operation wasn’t as successful as the first, and complications soon arose.
“She started out OK. She left the hospital for a couple days, then went right back in,” Debbie said.
Shortly after her 37th birthday, on July 27, 2010, Teresa Whiteman passed away.
After his daughter’s passing, Mike wanted to do something to preserve the memory of Teresa. He began to think of her biggest passions, and his mind jumped to her fondness for canines. Mike then had the idea of providing a drinking fountain for man’s best friend in Sherwood Park, where Teresa would often train the animals. She had often lamented that there was “no place for the dogs to drink,” Mike said.
The seasonal city worker began looking for parts and found an old drinking fountain the city was going to throw away. He took the fountain home with him, where he began working to make it canine-friendly. He lowered the bowl to ground level, and sanded and painted the structure. Teresa’s sister and her husband, Stephanie and Caleb Voorhees, painted black paw prints on the side, hoping to clarify the fountain’s purpose. Hal Blair of Custom Counterfitters donated stones that were etched with Teresa’s and Clinton’s names.
After 10 months of working on Teresa’s Fountain and getting the city’s approval for its installation, Mike and Debbie, along with the help of their friend Dan Wietrich, put the fountain in its current location at Sherwood Park and hooked up the water supply.
The fountain was meant as a surprise for Teresa’s and Clinton’s family, but the secret was leaked to others before the official unveiling.
As Dan and Mike went to get more tools to fix the fountain, Debbie would stay behind at the park to watch over things. Curious passersby would ask questions about the fountain, and Debbie would happily answer their inquiries.
“Maybe I should have been the one to go get the tools,” she laughed.
The fountain was officially revealed to Teresa’s mother and siblings Wednesday night. They immediately started snapping pictures to send to Gaylene Furu, Clinton’s sister, who plans to come to Grand Junction to see it for herself.
Debbie is happy her husband worked so hard to erect the memorial to his daughter. “I’m proud of Mike. Nothing could be more of a true tribute than something with dogs,” she said.