by Kristi Hawthorne (Published in Oceanside Living Magazine)
Theresia Heyden has led an interesting, albeit difficult life, but lives by the adage, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” At age 91, Theresia has a sharp mind along with a sharp wit. She shares stories of her adventurous travels and remembers with great detail the people she has met along the way.
Born in Germany in 1923, Theresia was formerly trained as a nurse practitioner. Her life, however, took a tragic turn when as a young woman the home her family owned since 1173 was occupied by the Russians during World War II. She was held as a prisoner of war in Russia and forced to work in a coal mine for three years.
Theresia was awarded the Iron Cross during the war when she bravely crossed into “no man’s land” to milk a cow to bring nourishment to the soldiers she was caring for and caught a pig so they could have meat. She tells this story as if everyone would have done the same in her position and is baffled that anyone would lack the very fortitude that has shaped her life.
Married to Peter Heyden in 1952, the couple arrived in New York in 1956. With a Masters in Nutrition and Nursing and a PHD in Foreign Relations, Theresia is most proud of her volunteer work, including as a Nurse Practitioner for the World Health Organization.
The Heydens moved to Oceanside in 1970 from Los Angeles after they saw an ad espousing the beauties and amenities of the city. Five years after arriving in Oceanside with her husband Peter, she was asked by the Red Cross to volunteer at the Vietnamese Refugee camps at Camp Pendleton. While others worked 8 hour days and were often paid for their time, Theresia worked 16 hour days six days a week and accepted no compensation. Working at the camps tirelessly for 6 months, she delivered 15 babies, many of which remain in contact with her.
She explained that people are her passion and caring for the refugees was second nature to her. Theresia related to them in a way most volunteers could not, she herself left home with nothing but the clothes on her back. She tended to the sick and the children with an unmatched dedication and commitment. After the camps closed Theresia continued to volunteer at Tri-City Hospital.
Theresia has visited many countries around the world including Indonesia where she helped to build 3 schools; and Papua New Guinea, where she lived and cared for the Stone Age people for six months in Irian Jaya. She quipped that she speaks two languages fluently and knows eight others well enough to get her into trouble. Her travels have also taken her to Turkey as well as Afghanistan where she started a school and was confronted by the Taliban, but she was and remains undeterred in the face of adversity.
Her world travels gave her an interest in an import business and she enrolled at MiraCosta College in 1977 taking a course in business. Theresia continued to work until the age 85. Although “retired” her passion for people and nursing continues to drive her and the legacy that she has created will continue to benefit countless people for many years to come.