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At The Heart Of A Holy Day Facing Death, Bishop Says, Forces Him Into Living

From behind the altar at St. John’s Cathedral, Episcopal Bishop Jeff Terry consecrates the bread and wine - his most sacred duty as a priest.

He sings the prayers a cappella, and the song floats through the stone temple on Spokane’s South Hill. Without fail, a single phrase - “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven” - touches the bishop’s failing heart.

The words describe heaven, which Terry calls the communion of saints. It has been a comforting image for him since he was 6 years old and watched two close relatives die.

Now, half a century later, Terry is facing the possibility of his own death. His heart is dying and he needs a new one. He is one of dozens of people on the list for a heart transplant.

Terry is a former missionary to the Philippines, a father of two and a spiritual leader to 6,000 Eastern Washington and North Idaho families. But his illness, more than any other experience, has forced him to confront his own questions about life and God.

“When I say this whole idea of the communion of the saints has been very strong with me, that’s not without a lot of pain,” he says. “The whole thing of ripping yourself away, that’s terrifying. So I don’t have any visions of all this stuff being easy.

“I just think there’s a different kind of death and it forces you into living.”

Terry was on one of his daily jogs five years ago when he fainted. It was his first sign of a heart problem.

In the emergency room, a nurse asked him if he had a regular doctor.

He didn’t, but he mentioned Dr. David Stagaman, whose marriage Terry had celebrated several years earlier in Ephrata, Wash.

Stagaman, a cardiologist, later diagnosed Terry’s condition as cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart. There’s no telling what caused it, the doctor says, possibly a viral infection.

“The initial diagnosis was really scary, simply because it had the potential for ending up where we are right now,” says Terry’s wife, Carolyn. “But at the same time, it had a hopeful possibility.”

Giving up jogging was the first of many sacrifices Terry, 58, made to preserve his life. Learning to take it easy was hard.

“As you get older, you have some pride in passing up these young guys,” he says.Over the last four years, his heart rhythm got more erratic. His life started revolving around doctors appointments, exercise classes for cardiac patients, naps in the afternoon.

The sicker he got, the more he gave up. First the six-day work week, then the 10-hour workdays, finally visiting 50 different churches a year, stretching from the Cascades to the Idaho Panhandle.

He was placed on the heart transplant list two days before last Christmas.

Since then, he spends most Sundays sitting in the pews at St. John’s. Occasionally, he preaches or presides at church services. He is scheduled to be in the pulpit today for the 11 a.m. Easter service.

Whether he is standing behind the altar or sitting with his parishioners, Terry’s name is mentioned among the long list of people in need of healing.

“At first, it sounded kind of funny, hearing my name mentioned,” he says. “Now, rather than being embarrassed by it, that’s turned into a powerful image for me.”

It represents the enormous outpouring of affection that sustains him through the waiting. There have been hundreds of calls and cards, from old friends and acquaintances, people he doesn’t know, people with whom he has had serious theological disagreements.

“People in leadership positions tend to hear a lot of criticism,” he says. “It flushes out for me the number of people who love me and that’s overpowering.”

While Terry credits others for helping him endure, the bishop’s spiritual director says he has watched Terry’s spirituality deepen as his health has failed.

“More and more he has come to realize that certain things are out of his control,” says Monsignor William Van Ommeren. “He has had to trust in God and doctors more than he ever thought he would have to.”

Although Terry is surrounded by medical and spiritual professionals, he finds needed support among fellow transplant patients. He sees them four days a week, during exercise classes and meetings.

They rarely talk about religion. Few even know he’s a bishop.

“They are from all walks of life,” Terry says. “Some are church members and some probably aren’t. That’s not the occasion of our conversation.”

They talk about waiting and healing, pain and fear. They exchange anecdotes about how their lives have changed.

As Terry has redefined his role as bishop and husband, the ripple effects have been felt by his staff, his wife and even his doctor.

Carolyn Terry, a teacher by profession, has been backed into the role of care-giver. It doesn’t come naturally, she says.

“I never for even one iota of a second had any vocation to anything that had anything to do with nursing,” she says. “I didn’t want to be a vet. I didn’t want to be a doctor. I didn’t play nurse. I don’t like needles. So hanging around a hospital is about the last place I want to be.”

Although she is a born leader, overtly advocating for her husband the priest appeared unseemly. Now that is her job.

She asks the “dumb questions.” She takes on the fear and anger, freeing her husband to focus his energy on staying alive.

During one recent hospitalization, Terry spent several hours gripping the side of his bed, listening to alarms announce changes in his heart rhythms, waiting in terror for the defibrillator in his chest to deliver the next electric jolt.

“It takes you a little while to get your courage back after that,” he says.

His wife still gets upset when she thinks about the ordeal. “It’s a great way to torture somebody. The psychological damage has been done. He’s going to be a long time healing from that.”

Terry’s cardiologist, Dr. Stagaman, had to rethink the doctor-patient relationship. Ever since Terry celebrated Stagaman’s wedding 14 years ago, the doctor has considered him a friend.

Stagaman has watched Terry’s heart trouble slip from a relatively benign condition to an unstable, life-threatening one.

Stagaman double-checks his decisions about Terry’s care with other doctors to ensure the emotional connection isn’t clouding his professional judgment.

“I get upset and end up crying about him more than any of my other patients,” he says.

Through it all, the lessons Terry has learned are the lessons of Easter: God is present in pain as well as pleasure, in sorrow and joy. But finally that God will not abandon.

“These experiences of getting sick and having to depend on others can be transformational,” Terry says. “It’s one thing to talk about living life the way you should, setting priorities, respecting relationships. It’s another thing in a more radical way to start doing it.

“I didn’t really have a whole lot of options.”

Carolyn Terry has latched onto the Scriptural image of the women at the foot of the cross, looking on as Jesus died.

“The whole idea of watching someone you love suffer, I know what that is like now,” she says. “And that has changed me.”

Terry looks back to his grandfather’s death when he was a child. He remembers saying good night to him and having him die a short time later.

After recovering from the shock, Terry says he embraced the concept of God’s people being reunited in a different life - heaven. It’s been central to his theology and crucial to coping with his illness.

It’s not death he fears, he says, but separation.

Until he gets a new heart, there is the day-to-day business of living, working and waiting. He has seen death’s devastation in his job. Yet it wasn’t until he faced his own death that he applied the lessons he’d learned.

“I think Bishop Terry now knows God is present in the doctors and surgeons, in the timing of it all, in the waiting,” Van Ommeren says. “There is where he grows, where we all grow, in the awareness of God being there.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color)

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WAITING FOR HELP There are more than 3,000 people waiting for a heart transplant in the United States, 50 in Spokane alone. One third of them die waiting. If you want to donate your organs after you die, you should tell your nearest relatives. They would have to authorize the donation upon your death. For more information about organ donation, call LifeCenter Northwest at 455-2040.

This sidebar appeared with the story: WAITING FOR HELP There are more than 3,000 people waiting for a heart transplant in the United States, 50 in Spokane alone. One third of them die waiting. If you want to donate your organs after you die, you should tell your nearest relatives. They would have to authorize the donation upon your death. For more information about organ donation, call LifeCenter Northwest at 455-2040.

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