Agent Orange leaves its mark on the life of Heather Bowser

This is the fourth of six parts of the special report Unfinished Business: Suffering and sickness in the endless wake of Agent Orange

By Connie Schultz, Video by Lisa DeLong

bill morris phone

William (Bill) Morris was drafted for the Vietnam War in 1967. He sent this photograph to his wife Sharon in 1968. "He went to Vietnam thinking of it as an adventure," Sharon said. "Then reality set in. All he wanted to do was stay alive and get home." (Heather Bowser)

Bill was discharged from the Army in the fall of 1971, and he and Sharon returned to Wintersville. Bill had grown up there, but it didn’t feel like home anymore. Most of his high school friends, including several who had worked with him in the mill, had gone off to college, not to Vietnam. He quickly found he had little in common with them.

He went back to the mill, but no longer knew most of the guys working with him. When the steelworkers union asked him to represent his local at a meeting for a Vietnam veterans’ support group, it didn’t go well. Bill had little patience for rehashing the past.

“He told them, ‘Get over it, and get a life,'” Sharon says. “And he never went back.”

Bill was beating a retreat.

“He was becoming increasingly withdrawn,” Sharon says. “He started drinking more than he ever had.”

Bill and Sharon wanted to start a family, but that wasn’t going well, either. Her first two pregnancies ended in miscarriages. Then, in the summer of 1972, they dared to hope: Sharon was pregnant again, and this time it looked like she would carry to term.

Bill was ecstatic.

“We both were,” Sharon says. “It was the first really good news we’d had since Bill had come home.”

In 1972, expectant parents did not routinely hover over ultrasound images of tiny fingers and toes, or seek reassurance in prenatal genetic testing. Sharon and Bill had no idea if she was carrying a boy or a girl.

All they knew was Sharon’s due date — Dec. 7, 1972 — and they were counting the days until their baby was born.

Heather Anne Morris was born in Pittsburgh’s Ohio Valley General Hospital on Oct. 7, a full two months early.

Sharon remembers lying on the delivery table, a tented sheet at her waist blocking her view. She remembers the doctor looking at her newborn baby and gasping, “Oh, my God.”

Her memory ends there. On doctor’s orders, the anesthesiologist knocked her out.

Two hours later, her tearful husband stood by her hospital bed and delivered the devastating news about their baby girl.

“She’s damaged,” Bill told her. “She has birth defects.”

Sharon was drowsy and thought she hadn’t heard him right. But she what Bill was talking about after he helped her out of bed and walked with her to the neonatal intensive care unit. She met her daughter through a window: Heather was missing her right leg below the knee, her left big toe and most of six of her fingers.

Sharon’s reaction was immediate: “What did I do wrong?”

A decade would pass before she and her husband came to suspect that Bill’s service in Vietnam was the reason their daughter was born with missing limbs. Until then, Sharon bore a mother’s guilt.

“I loved her from the moment I saw her, but I was so confused,” she said. “You blame yourself, you know. You’re the one who carried the baby. You never think it could have anything to do with the father, or anything else.”

For the first three weeks of Heather’s fragile life, they were not allowed to reach into the incubator to touch even her hand. Almost daily, hospital staff warned them to brace for the worst.

“We were pretty sure she was going to survive,” Sharon says. “She weighed 3 pounds, 2 ounces, but she never needed oxygen. But they kept telling us, ‘When they’re damaged on the outside, they’re usually damaged on the inside.’ ”

Heather’s parents asked a Lutheran pastor to baptize her at the hospital. Just in case.

Heather was 3 weeks old before Sharon was allowed to give her a bottle. On one of their countless visits to the NICU, Bill lost his temper when yet another nurse referred to Heather as “it.”

Sharon remembers him yelling, “Dammit!” and pointing to his daughter. “This is not an ‘it,’ this is a ‘she,’ and her name is Heather.”

Heather was discharged from the hospital a month after her birth. On the drive home, Sharon and Bill made a promise to their little girl.

“We vowed that we would not raise her to be more handicapped than she was,” Sharon says. “We would do everything we could to make her strong.”

Heather was 9 months old when she was fitted for her first prosthesis, which belted around her waist and didn’t bend at the knee. She was a quick study, in part because her parents were relentless teachers in the art of can-do.

“If she wanted a toy, we’d place it across the room and say, ‘Go get it,’ ” Sharon said. “She learned to walk real fast.”

For the first five years of her life, Heather’s parents told her she was special.

And for the first five years of her childhood, Heather believed them.

Then she started kindergarten.

Heather still remembers the exact moment when she realized that what made her special in the cocoon of a loving home looked mighty different to the world at large.

Her kindergarten teacher had instructed the children to sit in a circle on the floor. In the center was a single sheet of paper with an outline of a child’s hands. The teacher told the children to take turns matching their hands to the drawings.

“We were supposed to put our hands in and say, ‘This is my left hand, this is my right hand,'” Heather said.

She placed her hands on the paper. Her left hand has a regular thumb, a crooked pinky and three fingers that end at the first knuckle. On her right hand, the three middle fingers stop at her second joint. Her pinky is crooked, with only one joint and a nail jutting from the tip.

She looked at the traced hands, then down at her own.

Hmmm, she thought, as she raised her palms and stared. This is my left hand. And this is my right hand.

She looked again at the traced hands.

“Every eye was on me,” she said. “I couldn’t look at anybody. It was a moment that stopped in time.”

Heather’s mother remembers that day, too.

“She walked through the door and said, ‘Why are my hands different?’ ”

Sharon didn’t hesitate. “Because you’re unique. All those kids in your class, and you’re the only one like this. Your fingers are just shorter, that’s all.”

Sharon still chuckles at Heather’s response.

“She wasn’t buying it,” she said. “She wasn’t buying it at all.”

A few days later, her mother showed up in her class with an arsenal of information and good intentions.

“I felt it was necessary for me to explain to her classmates that Heather was still a little girl, still the same age as they were, just different. Her teacher had told me, ‘Heather’s the only child I can have an adult conversation with.’ ”

Heather has her own memories of that day.

“She wanted to help them understand that I was no different from them,” Heather said. “She showed them my prosthesis and said, ‘See? There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

She smiles gently at the memory. “My mom meant well, but I don’t think it helped.” Her face softens, and her eyes begin to glisten. “For years, one of my most common nicknames was ‘Peg Leg.’ ”

In sixth grade, Heather started suffering from enuresis, a bladder disorder that required frequent trips to the bathroom. Her teacher was impatient, and ridiculed her in front of her classmates.

“She’d say, ‘There she goes, down the hall again,’ ” Heather says. “I felt humiliated.”

Heather finally came home from school one day and told her parents, “I’m not going back.”

The next morning, Sharon and Bill showed up in the principal’s office. The teacher’s comments ceased.

“We learned early,” Sharon says. “You have to advocate for your child.”

Agent Orange leaves its mark on the life of Heather Bowser, Page 2


About Connie Schultz

Connie Schultz is a nationally syndicated columnist for The Plain Dealer and Creators Syndicate, and is a regular essayist for Parade magazine. She won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for columns that judges praised for providing “a voice for the underdog and the underprivileged." Also in 2005, Connie won the Scripps Howard National Journalism Award for Commentary and the National Headliner Award for Commentary.

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