Author found life after brain damage through love and faith
By Jean Redstone
About 25 years after a sudden aneurysm shattered her brain, her health and her expected future, Theresa Gattuso O‘Connor sat herself down and began writing her story. She was looking, she said, for herself, for the person the 14-year-old was when the aneurysm burst, and the person that girl would have become.
She was also looking to fulfill what she characterizes as a feeling “so intense and so potent” about her experiences that she had to write them. Her book, A Whisper From Within, My Life, My Terms, was published in September by WestBow Press, a self-publishing service specializing in religious writing.
The first thing one notices about Theresa O’Connor is her vibrantly deep blue, close to purple-blue eyes. Elizabeth Taylor eyes, when that actress was, like O’Connor, in her early 40s. The next thing that catches notice is the long, sleek, dark hair, carefully parted to frame her oval face just so. The face is hopeful. The look says, “I like you, I hope you like me”.
Then there’s the wheelchair. Actually, O’Connor mostly travels these days in a three-wheeled scooter, a racy little affair that is highly maneuverable and fits without fuss into her specially-equipped van.
The van increases her independence, an ability O’Connor fights to protect. She and her husband, Joe, who owns NNTS Inc, a technology firm offering services and solutions for businesses, have an 11-year-old daughter, Samantha. Joe O’Connor works from home, using the saved commuting time to aid his wife as needed.
Their Mickleton house is not far from Swedesboro, where Theresa O’Connor’s parents, the late Anthony and Rose Gattuso, owned a 72-acre vegetable farm. She has found part of her 14-year-old self in memories of the farm life she shared with her nine siblings, including her twin sister Joann. Her memories come out best when she writes them. Her voice is very weak, her articulation sometimes labored, an effect of brain damage.
“I used to love running around those big fields, feeling so unlimited and free,” she said in a recent email. “Climbing trees, working in the fields, picking and packing vegetables that were planted in the fields. Driving the tractors and unloading whatever was on the wagons at the time. My brothers would throw tomatoes or peppers at me and Joann in the fields. Every once in a while they would tell us to eat this pepper (which was a Jalapeño pepper) and say, it’s not hot!!! Come on, eat it and silly Joann and I, we would believe them and eat it and they would get a kick out of (our reaction)!!!
“Thinking about it now, I had goofy brothers. But, it was so much fun and I would never replace those incredible, silly memories in my heart because I felt so much overwhelming love from them all — besides that Jalapeño incident!!”
O’Connor remembers her early life as highly active, athletic, and largely carefree. “I loved playing basketball with my friend and with my brothers and with my twin sister Joann!! I was on my school basketball team at St. Joseph’s in Swedesboro and some of my teammates used to call me Charles Barkley from the 76ers basketball team because I used to throw the ball so hard against the back board! Basketball was truly one of my favorite sports of all!!!
“I was a very good swimmer and I used to love to go to the beach at Sea Isle City and dive underneath those waves. It was such an Incredible Thrilling Rush running throughout my body. Feeling those waves going over you and coming back up with sand between your toes.” O’Connor writes with much enthusiastic emphasis, seemingly a way to capture the emotions her voice can’t provide.
In 1986 the 14-year-old carefree teen was blindsided by the aneurysm. “This weird feeling came in my head which I never felt before. It was strange, utterly, feeling like I was lost with my thought and everything came to a blur and fuzzy.”
What followed was an excruciating headache, vomiting, profound confusion and, ultimately, a deep coma. She pulled out of the two-month coma, but was left with severe physical limitations, and a period of jumbled thoughts and memories. She did not feel like herself, O’Connor said.
“It has been a very hard road for me, especially (at first) and seeing myself in my twin sister and how I used to be. We did everything together. I was so bitter, very angry and jealous…because once I was physically able-bodied, not limited, but now…everything was taken away.”
This seems to have been a turning point, O’Connor said. She did the soul-searching, faced the fact of handicap, and determined to move forward rather than give up. She began becoming who she wanted to be. “Acceptance gave me such a more powerful and positive outlook…to achieve my goals and dreams, persevere, believe and never give up on myself.”
By nature, O’Connor is sunny, upbeat and positive, the glass is half-full. She met her husband, Joe, when she entered high school (Kingsway). Joe O’Connor said his first impression of Theresa was “she had such a beautiful smile. I say that even today. When she smiles and she’s happy, she can light up a room. We started talking and we just clicked.” They fell in love. Not the Hallmark Christmas movie kind of love, where he and she kiss at the end and then it snows.
Together since they were 16, and married in 1993, they share a realistic, lets-take-care-of-each-other kind of love.
“There are times she gets angry and upset with life, but once she’s over it, she’s strong again.” Joe O’Connor said of his wife. “You know how there are some people, when they have a happy spirit, for some reason it‘s a catchy thing? That‘s her,” he added.
Joe O’Connor said he sees life, “as a challenge, not a struggle,” an outlook in sync with his wife’s determination not to be held back. Not long after their marriage, he supported Theresa’s wish to enter the Mrs. New Jersey Pageant, and wheeled her onstage for her portion of the pageant. Of the 300 entries, she came in fourth runner-up.
Theresa O’Connor constantly praises Joe, his family and her family for “the love they have given me. When I first met Joe it was very hard at that time to be me. I didn’t know who Theresa was.”
Her family’s unwavering commitment to her and willingness to help her is a large part of how Theresa found herself. Joe, his family, and Theresa’s family make sure she has help when needed, especially since Samantha’s birth. “I have ups and downs. You have to do what you have to do to get to where you want to be,” O‘Connor said. She added her family’s love and help proves “they are my gifts from God.”
After Samantha was born, what Theresa wanted most, she said, was to be a good mother, a good role-model for her daughter. “There were times Joe had to carry me to the beach, because you can’t take a walker or wheelchair on the sand,” she said. “It was embarrassing. When I had Samantha I asked God to help me. I envisioned Him beside me. I wanted to be independent to show Samantha my disability can’t hold me back. Sometimes I just wanted to go to the park with her by myself.”
Periodically, with help or assistive aids, O’Connor has been able to walk. Her wedding photos prove this. Her mobility was greatly enhanced with the van, when she could drive herself and her daughter places. With her improved independence came a stronger confidence.
O’Connor turned some of her attention to a growing impulse. She had frequently written down “before I forget, my emotions, my feelings, my awareness.” Now she was aware of a compelling desire to write a whole book about surviving her trauma and how she did this.
She identified her compulsion as a message from God. “I see the whole picture of what my life is all about and the plans God has for me. He’s giving me the strength and courage (for) what I need to do in my life’s mission,” she wrote a friend.
In fact, she noted in an interview a number of coincidences she sees as messages from God along her life’s journey. For example, she made a last-minute switch to go to Kingsway High School, where fairly quickly, she met Joe. “And Joe’s mother’s name is Theresa and his dad is Joe. His mom’s birthday is June 23 and so is my mom’s. And my first crush was named Joe. I wrote ‘Joe and Theresa’ on the barn wall in sixth grade. He was meant to be my significant other,” O’Connor said, one of those bright smiles Joe loves crossing her face.
“I remember one time (in a parking lot) seeing a sign that said ‘Handicapped Parking’ and I remember wondering what it would feel like to be handicapped. I didn’t forget that moment.”
After high school, O’Connor worked at DuPont Medical Center in Wilmington and a number of times she was questioned by worried parents of patients there. “How was it for me? What is it like in a wheelchair? Questions like that. I realized I had a message to give. Every day I wake up and feel trapped inside my body and I say, ‘God, help me’ I know there‘s a reason this happened to me.”
She began writing her story as an adjunct to her baby journal for Samantha. She wrote in the mornings, sometimes into the night. She felt her writing was guided by God. “I know all the obstacles and hurdles I overcame and achievements I succeeded were for a reason,” she wrote her friend. “That reason is all of these life experiences are my lessons — lessons I am supposed to share to others as miraculous visions of faith.”
The quick summary of O’Connor’s book is, “We all have the power to change our lives, to achieve our goals through faith in God and (belief) in yourself.”
Just months before the book went to press, O’Connor underwent surgery for breast cancer. “I’m scared,” she admitted. “Every day I think about it and I do one day at a time. I just keep moving forward.” She paused, then her face brightened. ‘My Christmas wish for people is to be aware of the power you have of believing in yourself and believing in God. Believe.
“There are only two options. Give up or keep going.
“I am already planning my next book.”