ZEELAND, Mich. — They are fighters by chance, but sisters by choice.
Teresa Harris and Terri Elliott were both born with 'bad' hearts, they say—congenital heart defects as a result of valve abnormalities.
While distance might separate them—Teresa lives in Zeeland, Terri lives on the east side of the state—support found in each other through a shared battle has brought them closer than either ever expected.
"We’re joined at the heart," Harris said. "We just have something the average woman doesn’t understand at all."
Harris and Elliott even coined a term for their friendship: 'heart sisters.'
“Heart sister to me means we are totally tied by the heart, the feeling, the loving the caring, everything that goes along with that," Elliott said.
Both women said they spent their lives since childhood feeling different and isolated because of their conditions. It's something many doctors say is common among people with congenital heart disease due to physical scars from surgery or the inability to participate in competitive sports or gym class.
"If people were aware of it and understood it more, they wouldn’t be so quick to judge," Elliott said. "Other people can't see something is wrong with me, they can’t see I have a bad heart ... so they don’t understand."
Harris said it was those feelings of loneliness stemming from her condition that caused her to finally ask her cardiologist to help.
"I was so tired of being called special and different and unique," she recalled. "I asked my cardiologist... if there was anybody like me out there, anybody."
Harris' doctor told her he'd reached out to another patient of his to see if she wanted to connect.
Elliott was on the receiving end of that request nearly 25 years ago.
"We hit it off," Harris said. "We were heart sisters from then on.”
All these years after that initial phone call, Harris and Elliott have never lost touch. Elliott was even Harris' maid of honor in her wedding.
“When I feel anything I want to talk about to her she’s there she’s there to listen and it’s vice versa," Elliott said.
Most recently, the two shared news that would forever change Harris' prognosis.
"I got the phone call at my work from her," Elliott recalled of the phone call from Harris. "She was screaming saying she got a heart."
In May, Harris underwent a successful heart transplant at Michigan Medicine, a procedure doctors say took six hours. She continues to recover from the intensive surgery and expresses gratitude for the "gift of life" she finally received.
"I wouldn’t be sitting here right now, I was getting sicker and sicker by the day," she said.
"I have a new life."
And while it's a new life for Harris, Elliott acknowledges it's a chance she may never get.
"I may never have a chance to get a heart transplant," Elliott said, adding that there are not nearly enough donated organs to meet the demand of those in need.
"I’m looking forward to living my life vicariously through [Harris]."
For now, the two are focusing on Harris' recovery. But said the main reason they wanted their story told was to raise awareness about their heart conditions and the research that is still sorely needed to definitely determine what causes it.
"Maybe more research will tell if this stuff’s genetic or not," Elliott said. "[Research] is underfunded, and it'd be good if people could give, not just if they have a heart condition in their family, because chances are somewhere in someone’s family they will have it."
Both women hope to eventually meet the family of Harris' donor, to thank them in person.
Congenital heart defects impact nearly 1% of―or about 40,000―births per year in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Elliott created a GoFundMe to raise money for Harris as she continues to recover while caring for her son with autism.