The human currency that never inflates, never deflates and is never counterfeit is a mother’s love. It buys bosomy comfort in infancy, patience in adolescence, courage in crisis and support when wings are tried at the edge of the nest. Some mothers are better than others, but few are bad.
It’s all true. Just ask the person who has one.
Did I mention sacrifice? Well, I shall …
Angelica Valentine and her son, Bill Bostick, are a small family under siege in their walk-in-closet Encinitas apartment. It is not apparent because they tend to keep their troubles to themselves. She is a pleasant woman of 64 with a smile as sweet as a macaroon. He is a tiny, fragile man of 43 who has spent his entire life on a tightrope at the edge of the abyss.
They are more pleasant than their journey.
Young mother Angelica would bolt wide-awake, not to a sound but to silence. She would tiptoe to her only child’s crib and listen for a breath.
“I would look down, and I would put my hand on his little chest and hope that it would rise and fall.” She would say to herself, “Please let him be breathing, please let him be breathing.”
Sometimes, breath would be as thin as an angel’s sigh. One instance, she was just in time to pick the baby up and felt no heartbeat, but that movement got his heart started again.
“That could have gone on only for seconds. It was just a miracle that I got up and checked on him.”
She did this every night, sometimes several times a night in her Florida home.
The doctors had told her that “it was likely I would go in to check on him one morning, and he would have taken his last breath.”
It didn’t start out that way. William Philip Bostick was born in October 1970 to Angelica and her Air Force husband. He weighed a little more than 6 pounds and seemed healthy.
No, he wasn’t: “My son was born with a two-chambered heart. I was told only 3 percent of babies born with that would live to be 5 months old. The center wall of his heart was missing completely and there was a hole between the upper chambers and a hole between the lower chambers.”
At 2 months, she had noticed he didn’t seem able to suck milk out of his bottle, although he had gained 4 pounds. One doctor said she should just put a larger hole in the nipple and that would take care of it. She did, and it improved his feeding, but she also observed a transparency to his skin. He wasn’t particularly lethargic, but with a mother’s instinct, she took him to a pediatrician who told her something didn’t see right. So he scheduled tests.
Results in, the doctor delivered the bad news about Billy’s heart in a funereal voice he wasn’t able to disguise. He said the 4 pounds of weight gain was all water, and it was all right around his heart. When they got rid of the excess water, he returned to his birth weight of 6 pounds.
Doctors attempt to put a good face on bad news, but some things have to be confronted. They all thought Billy was — frankly — as good as dead.
Not only was the future bleak, but Angelica had to face it all alone. Her Air Force husband couldn’t cope with the tragedy that had struck his family.
“He rejected both of us. It was very hard for me to think that somebody I married could feel that way, but he made the choice to not be involved in my son’s life.”
Not only that, but the marriage turned “extremely” abusive for both mother and child, she says. As Billy grew, always slower and smaller than the other children, his father started to physically abuse both of them.
“When Billy was about 5, his father would hold him with one hand and hit him with the other. Billy’s whole body would shake.”
How does someone strike a child with a bad heart?
“That was my question,” she says. “I’m like, ‘How are you like this? Where does that come from?’ ”
Was he a heavy drinker?
“No, he wasn’t. He just couldn’t deal with the situation and he turned his anger toward us. He did that for years.”
Angelica says her religiously rigid family strongly opposed divorce and she relented to them for 10 years, but finally enough was enough and she divorced him. Fortunately, her son received dependent military insurance for life.
For Angelica, the struggle was just beginning. Billy required constant care, which was job No. 1 for her. In between time, she enjoyed success as an artist and gallery operator. Billy was on daily doses of potent digitalis. Angelica had to listen to his heart to make sure the rhythm was OK before giving him the medication.
“One day in 1972, I suddenly heard something that sounded like crashing waves in his chest. It was caused by blood from the defective heart that was being pumped at high pressure into his lungs, and the lungs were being destroyed.
“We not only had his heart disease, now we had lung disease. I traveled the country going from medical center to medical center, looking for someone who could help with that. And it turned out they all said it was impossible that he would ever have surgery.”
When Billy started school and would become stressed, his two-chamber heart would go into “superventricular tachycardia,” an extreme irregular heartbeat. When that would happen, his heart could race from a normal rate of, say, 70 beats per minute up to the measuring limit of the machine at 355 beats, Angelica says.
In 1981, the first successful heart-lung transplant was done by surgeon Bruce Reitz of Stanford University. From that moment, Angelica saw the operation as the only realistic hope to keep her son alive.
Angelica threw herself into a quarter-century campaign to get Bill approved for the surgery. Along the way, she pushed her way through the brambles of insurance foot-dragging, hospital approval and then trying to be patient amid the lack of suitable donors.
A final obstacle was Stanford’s refusal to proceed until she had almost $150,000 in the bank to cover extra expenses during the long recovery. She obtained that by selling their Florida home.
Finally, on Aug. 15, 2007, Bill Bostick, 36, spent 23 hours on the operating table to receive the heart and lungs of a 23-year-old person; name, residence, cause of death, even sex, were withheld from Billy. All he knew was that because someone died, he might live.
Tuesday, Part II: For Billy, heart disease and heartache.