As they cradled her lifeless body Monday, Ed and Ann Bartlinski tried to picture their 6-year-old daughter on a bicycle pedaling toward heaven, to celebrate her life as a miracle, rather than see her death as a sign of unanswered prayers.
Teresa Bartlinski, an effervescent child abandoned after birth in a village on the banks of China's Yellow River, died at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia after doctors attempted to implant an artificial heart in her chest.
Three years after her adoption by the Catonsville family, Teresa had already outlived everyone's expectations. She was born with a condition that prevented the development of the left side of her heart, and her organs were deprived of the oxygen needed to grow healthy and strong.
Riding a bike, adorned with frills fit for a princess, was Teresa's greatest wish. But her body rejected a heart transplant she received in June. The artificial heart was intended to be a bridge until a second donor heart became available.
Ed Bartlinski said the ultimate lesson his daughter taught him was "love. Unconditional love."
As Teresa's body failed, members of her medical team stepped out of her hospital room, one by one and then two at a time. And eventually, all the family and friends and clergymen left until her parents were alone to hold her and kiss her, to say goodbye.
"God gave her to us for three years; we're all on loan from God," Ed Bartlinski said.
The Bartlinskis, devout Roman Catholics, had enlisted the faithful to pray for Teresa's miraculous healing through the intercession of the late Pope John Paul II. Parishioners and schoolchildren at the family's church, St. Mark, and its affiliated primary school asked God for a miracle.
And God delivered a miracle Monday, the Rev. Christopher J. Whatley said, even if it was not the one the Bartlinskis wanted.
"She has a life of peace and joy with her Jesus," said Whatley, pastor at St. Mark and spiritual adviser to the Bartlinskis. "As she was leaving us, we were telling her, especially her mother, that Jesus was waiting for her.
"There is no limit to love, to human love as explicated by her parents. It is a sign to us of the infinite nature of God's love."
Ed Bartlinski said the outpouring from around the world "gives a lot of comfort and a lot of joy amidst all the sorrowfulness in our life." The family posted updates of Teresa's journey on their blog, "Our Place Called Home" and a Facebook page, "Pray for Teresa B."
People from Hong Kong, Nova Scotia, Sweden, Arkansas, Indiana and California signed online messages of support for Teresa and the Bartlinskis. In the past two days, dozens of photos of children wearing tiaras — Teresa's trademark accessory — were posted on the Facebook page.
"And now our hearts are breaking as hers is healed," one woman wrote.
Another said, "Now she will take care of you and watch over you the same way you did for her. Be at peace."
Sean Caine, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said Teresa's life brought others to God.
"At a time when many question the role of faith in their lives, the Bartlinskis have courageously and steadfastly reminded us that faith is a gift and a blessing that sustains us, including when life is most difficult," Caine said in a statement Monday.
"By sharing Teresa's courageous battle the Bartlinskis have brought together in prayer people of all faiths. Today we come together again in prayer as we ask God to take Teresa in His loving embrace and grant comfort and consolation to her parents, family, and friends."
Denise Campbell, a family friend who lives three doors from the Bartlinskis' home, said it will be hard to see all the children playing in the cul-de-sac without Teresa.
"Even though we knew from the beginning that she was terminal, you really can't prepare yourself to say goodbye to such a special little kid," Campbell said. "The miracle and the blessing is how she brought everyone together. We're all better people for having had Teresa in our life."
Campbell's daughter, Allison, is best friends with Teresa's older sister, Grace, 14.
Grace is one of the Bartlinskis' four biological children. The couple adopted Teresa and four other special-needs girls from China.
Teresa's condition was the most severe of all the Bartlinskis' adopted children. Ed Bartlinski said the procedure to attach the artificial heart failed because doctors weren't able to properly fit tubes from the device to circulate blood to her damaged lungs.
Her condition, hypoplastic left heart syndrome, can be survived, but early medical intervention is necessary.
Teresa, known as "Liu Fang" and "FangFang" in China, was abandoned in Shanxi, west of Beijing, in a place where whoever left her knew she'd be found, the family said.
Eventually, she came into the care of an American orphanage in China called Half the Sky. The founder, Jenny Bowen, said in an earlier statement to The Baltimore Sun that Teresa is a child she would always remember.
"Among all the thousands of children we work with at Half the Sky, there are a few I know I will never forget," Bowen said in a November statement. "All of our children are survivors, but a special few seem to embrace life completely. You can see in their eyes that they know how precious life is. FangFang is one of those rare, magical children who seem to treasure every moment."
Visitation and funeral arrangements for Teresa have not been set.
To help with Teresa's medical bills
A group, "Believe In Miracles," was established to take donations to help cover the medical expenses incurred by the Bartlinskis.
To contribute, send donations to Believe In Miracles, P.O. Box 21199, Catonsville 21228.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun