Poetry Brings Light to Darkness

Excelsior writer shares her journey with a terminal illness through art.

At age 23, Excelsior’s Anna Jeter has shouldered a burden that most people her age could barely imagine: a serious illness and a heartbreaking prognosis. “When I was 4, I was diagnosed with a terminal heart-lung illness, pulmonary hypertension,” Jeter explains. “At the time, with limited treatments, doctors told my parents that I would likely only live for another three to five years.” Jeter responded well to some clinical trials that became available in the years following her diagnosis; she says, “that’s a large part of why I’m still here today.” As she gets older, her health is still fragile, and any injury or sickness poses a huge risk. “The only solution for my illness is a heart-lung transplant,” she says. Jeter and her family ultimately decided to get her on the transplant waiting list at Stanford in California.  

For the better part of her childhood, Jeter led what she calls a “normal” life. “I was very fortunate to not be hospitalized frequently,” she says. “I was on IV therapy, so I had to wear a backpack with a medical device. That was a big deal...But it was my normal and I never really questioned it. I went to school, hung out with friends, did sleepovers.” The Jeters lived in Excelsior when Anna was born and moved to Michigan for a couple of years—that’s when she was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension. “We came back to Excelsior,” Jeter says. “I went to Minnewashta Elementary. I was pretty oblivious to the seriousness of my disease, because my family was so incredible.”

Jeter graduated from Minnetonka High School in 2013, and earned her nursing degree from Bethel University in St. Paul—something she wasn’t certain she’d be able to accomplish. “My senior year of high school, my health started to decline. Something was changing.” One of her physicians told Jeter that it was time to consider a transplant. But Jeter and her healthcare team were able to make some improvements, to “bump up her baseline,” as she says, and she started college. When she graduated, it was time to begin the transplant journey in earnest. “There’s a really specific window, where you’re sick enough to get high on the list, but not sick enough for the procedure to go badly,” she says. “The list is an interesting thing to navigate.”

So for now, Jeter faces what sometimes feels like an endless waiting game. As a kid with a chronic illness, she couldn’t participate in a lot of typical childhood activities. So she turned to art. “Art and writing have become an instrumental aspect of my grieving and healing processes,” she says. She took a poetry class at Bethel. “That really clicked,” she says. “It’s an outlet for me to refine what I’m always thinking, and put it into the world.” Jeter is working on getting a collection of her poetry ready to publish. And what does she write about? “It’s a lot of commentary on grief. I grew up with this very intimate knowledge of death,” she says. “Poetry gives me control over how I want to communicate with the world, and that’s really special to me. And the response is the coolest thing ever.” Jeter shares her drawings, photography and poems on her Instagram account (@anna.lisabeth) and has been gratified by the response, even from strangers. “They’ll reach out to me and say, ‘This line means so much to me.’ The coolest part is, interpretation is up to the audience. So it always means something different to someone out in the world than it does to me.”

Jeter says she’s looking forward to what the future holds. A transplant, even with all the unknowns that go with it, will offer a fresh start. And she’s grateful for every moment of her life. When we spoke, she was looking forward to her birthday. “I turn 23 on Friday—and it’s incredible.”