Young woman faces challenge with true grit

DONNIE BRYANT donnie.bryant@empiretribune.com
Veronica credits her mother, Katrina, for giving her strength to get through difficult times. DONNIE BRYANT/E-T

Fall is a time much anticipated by most Texans who have become weary of the grueling heat of summer. But for Cystic Fibrosis - or CF - patient, Veronica Baldridge, the season can be a trigger that just might land her in the hospital.

“Around spring and fall, with the weather changing, can be hard on me,” she said.

Veronica was the recipient of one of nature's cruel jackpots. Although millions of Americans carry the defective CF gene, many do not have any symptoms of the hereditary disease, which is not so easy to inherit.

“For some reason I had the same freak gene her father had,” Veronica's mother, Katrina, explained. “Once those two genes come together, you have a one in four chance. Her brother does not have it, but Roni was the 'winner' of that treat.”

CF causes the body to produce an abnormally thick and sticky fluid called mucus. This mucus builds up in the breathing passages of the lungs and in the pancreas, the organ that helps to break down and absorb food.

“As a baby she had obstructed intestines,” Katrina said. “Her tummy started to distend, and we care flighted her to Cook's. They cleared up her intestines and got her back on the road.”

But the Baldridge's relationship with Cook's was to be ongoing for the next two decades.

“At seven months she was less than 10 pounds, couldn't even sit up,” Katrina said. “She was on her deathbed. I took her back to Cook's and told them we had to do something. So they ran more tests. We were there 28 days that stay, but they figured out what was wrong and put her on the meds. Then off we went again.”

Veronica was to spend an estimated 50 stays in the hospital over the years. Veronica admits the staff at Cook's felt a sense of ownership with her.

“They were good with my CF,” Veronica said, whose conversation was punctuated with a subtle cough. “Cook's had a doctor up there everyday?3 times a day, just talking to me. I guess I was 'babied' there.”

In the last year Veronica had been a Cook's patient at least 4 times.

“The last year or two I have been in the hospital every four months,” Veronica said.

Before that, she was hospitalized once or twice every two years, but she admits it has gotten a little worse of late.

At 21 Veronica recently “outgrew” the children's hospital and has had to spend some time in Texas Health Harris Methodist Fort Worth. Although she knows the move to another hospital is a logical one, she misses the members of the staff at Cook's that had become a veritable family for her and maintains ties with them. And she has a friend who is a nurse at Cook's.

“She works on my floor that I'm always at,” she said. “She'll text me and tell me, 'So and so says Hi.'”

She suddenly grew pensive.

“I really need to go visit them,” she added.

“When I turned 21 and couldn't go to Cook's anymore, I got to go with my best friend to see my favorite band, One Direction,” she said. “The people at Cook's got me tickets like on the very last day they were on sale. They did it because I was 'graduating' from there.”

Despite the severity of her illness, Veronica is surprisingly cheerful.When asked about her plans for the future, the young woman's answer reflected a pragmatism well beyond her years.

“Oh, Lord,” she said. “I don't really have any plans because as morbid as it sounds, I don't know if I'll even be alive the next day. I really just take it day by day.

“I try to deal with it,” she added. “I see a lot of the kids at the hospital, and it makes me feel so bad because they are depressed. That just makes me sad. So when someone sees me, I don't want them to think, 'Aw, she's sick.' I want them to think, 'Oh, she's smiling; she's happy.'”

Although both refuse to lose their positive perspectives, the Baldridges are forthcoming about the hardships they endure.

“I never get a regular chest cold,” Veronica explained. “I get full blown lung infections. I go from being okay to really bad. When I get to feeling really run down, I'll call the doctor and go see him. He'll try things for me, but if that doesn't work in about two weeks, I'm like, 'Dang it. Here we go!'

“When I get a lung infection, my legs swell up and it hurts to walk,” she said.

“She'll keep coughing and coughing until she is exhausted,” Katrina added. “There's no physical energy left in that poor child.”

Cystic Fibrosis tends to usher in a legion of other illnesses. Veronica is also plagued with insulin dependent diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.

And all of her conditions require multiple medications at extensive cost.

“I take lot's of medications,” she said.

“Her prescription bill per month is over $9,000,” Katrina said. “A couple of her meds are over $4,000 a month each.”

Veronica refuses to play the part of a victim and is adamant her life has just as many ups as downs.

“I have tons of friends that are there for me all of the time,” she said. “I've got family. Even my teachers have worked with me and helped me throughout my life. I don't really feel I've had to give up that much.”

Some friends might even be a bit too solicitous at times.

“Some of them ask me, 'Do you need to sit down? Do you feel okay?' And I think, 'If I do, I will. So calm down.'”

And it is evident every day Veronica's family and friends get to spend with the cheerful young woman continues to be a gift.

“If you talked to anyone that knew her, they would never describe her as anything other than upbeat,” Katrina said. “She's got a huge list medically. But she has never been a sad kid. She has always been our social butterfly.”