Bringing hope to others with terminal disease

Posted July 20, 2010, at 1:06 a.m.
Last modified Oct. 24, 2010, at 4:02 p.m.
Jeannette Morrill of Shirley (Bangor Daily News by Diana Bowley)
Jeannette Morrill of Shirley (Bangor Daily News by Diana Bowley)

SHIRLEY, Maine — When she was a physical education teacher, Jeannette Morrill used to urge her students to exercise for good health. Unfortunately, the Shirley woman has not been able to take her own advice since 1974.

Because of pulmonary hypertension, the once physically fit Morrill, 57, can no longer run, jump or lift heavy objects, and she must rely on oxygen to help her breathe at night.

“I went from being very physically fit to a life of where my physical activity was confined to being able to rock in a rocking chair,” Morrill said Monday.

Living with pulmonary hypertension, a condition of increased blood pressure in the blood vessels of the lungs, has been a long journey for Morrill, whose frustrations, prayers and concerns are chronicled in a daily journal she has kept through the years. It helped her cope with the rare and incurable disease.

Her journal entries are part of a book Morrill recently wrote called “Living with Pulmonary Hypertension, 34 Years and Counting, Healing the Mind and Body Through Faith.” As one of the world’s longest-living survivors of the disease, Morrill said the book was meant to bring hope to others fighting a terminal illness.

According to a foreword written by Dr. Joel Wirth, director of the division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Maine Medical Center in Portland, about 15 people per million develop pulmonary hypertension, or PH, and women are almost three times more likely than men to have it. About 30,000 people have the dis-ease in the United States. Its symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue, chest discomfort, light-headedness and fainting.

It was the fainting that clued Morrill that something dreadful was wrong in 1974. She fainted while running laps as a coach with her basketball team at Georges Valley High School in Thomaston, she recalled. A doctor initially shrugged it off as a “freak thing,” but Morrill’s health continued to decline. By the next summer, Mor-rill said, she couldn’t climb stairs without becoming winded.

An echocardiogram and a heart catheterization, one of the most accurate and useful tests for PH, made the confirmation of the disease in 1976, according to Morrill. It took two years because the early symptoms of PH are easily confused with other conditions, such as asthma, and she was given two years to live, she said.

Not one willing to give up, Morrill willingly participated in new drug trials and studies, since there were no drugs available to counteract the symptoms when she first was diagnosed. Today, she relies on a tiny pump and a tube that snakes from a fanny pack into her heart to deliver medicine.

She considers the fact that she’s still alive a “miracle” and says it has convinced her that her purpose in life now is to educate and comfort others who have PH. She has traveled extensively throughout the country, giving talks and sharing her story with others who have the debilitating disease.

Morrill has raised $30,000 over three years at her annual golf tournament, “Swinging for a Cure.” This year’s tournament, which will be held during the New England PH Forum, is on Saturday, Sept. 18, at the Nonesuch River Golf Club in Scarborough.

In addition, Morrill is pushing for passage of the Tom Lantos PH Research and Education Act of 2009, which, if approved by the U.S. Senate and House, would provide funds for research and list pulmonary hypertension with other rare diseases.

“I do know I’ve helped a lot of people,” Morrill said of her efforts. She has seen the relief on the faces of mothers, daughters, fathers and sons when they learn she has lived with the disease for many years, and that gives them the first glimmer of hope for their loved ones.

Her son Ian once asked Morrill whether she would change anything if she had her life to live over.

“I told him I’d have to say no because I think I’ve found my true purpose in life,” she said.

Jeannette Morrill will sign and sell her book from 6 to 9:30 p.m. Aug. 4 at DKB’s Desserts on the Verandah in Greenville. For more information on the book, the golf tournament or pulmonary hypertension, call her at 695-3042 or e-mail her at morrill@dishmail.net.

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