ST. LOUIS — Teara Norris' first memories were made at Children's Hospital.
"Children's was like my first home, not even a second home," Norris said. "It was like a first home for me."
She was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia before she was even born, and she said she had her first episode with the illness when she was 2.
"I grew up in the hospital," Norris said. "My family was always there with me. My mom went through the whole journey with me. She lost many jobs because of it."
When she was younger, Norris said she was less aware of the toll her illness took on her family, from medical bills to the time and attention she needed from her parents. However, when she turned 18, she said she immediately started feeling the full weight of her illness.
The 34-year-old mother of two said she spends time in the hospital multiples times a year. Sometimes, she said she can go three to four months without a hospital stay. Other years, she said she's been hospitalized every month. The hospital stays can last anywhere from a few days to two full months.
Norris said when she's in the hospital, it's hard on her sons.
“They have to be with sitters and their dad," Norris said. "But nobody is like their mommy, so they call me. They come and visit me every day.”
Then, she said, there is the financial pressure.
“It literally costs for everything," Norris said. "The gloves that they wear, the medicine I take, and I get a lot of medicine. The blood transfusions. Every single thing that comes into my room, that I have to use, costs."
Even after receiving Medicaid and Medicare benefits, Norris said she still faces thousands in medical debt from her past treatment as well as the prescriptions she regularly needs. Just days ago, she received a medical bill for more than $6,000.
"It impacts a lot," Norris said.
A week ago Norris was asked to speak at an event where the United Church of Christ and the Deaconess Foundation announced they'd purchased more than $13 million of medical debt for thousands of families in St. Louis City and County.
While the churches and foundation could not confirm who specifically would receive letters about their medical debt being paid off, Norris believes she will likely receive one. For Norris, the news that her medical debt is paid off is more than just a matter of not having to pay pesky bills.
"My whole life is going to change because all of this is going to be swept away," Norris said. "I'll be able to do the things I want to do. I could finally buy a house for me and my family."
While Norris said she is anxiously awaiting the arrival of a yellow envelope in her mailbox, she said she is also excited for other families in the area and the sickle cell community who will benefit from the medical debt forgiveness program.
"I receive Medicaid and Medicare, but not everyone does," Norris said. "They have to pay everything out of pocket, and a lot of them can't pay it. If you're in the hospital every month, what is the likeliness of you being able to keep a job?"
Reverend Rebecca Turner, the pastor of Christ Church United Church of Christ, said RIP Medical Debt told the churches the debt purchased covers nearly half of the medical debt in St. Louis City and St. Louis County.
Norris said her hope is that this will help many suffering from sickle cell.
“I want people to know the impact of sickle cell,” Norris said. “I want the word for sickle cell to be out there. You can grow old with sickle cell. I’m 34, and they said I wasn’t supposed to be born. Not only was I not supposed to be born, I wasn’t supposed to live past five.”
She said has a YouTube channel in the works to help share her story and spread awareness about the disease.