What the Heart Knows

Late on an autumn night in 2003, the rain was coming down so heavy I almost didn’t hear the faint thumping at our garage door downstairs. My husband lay in bed next to me, snoring and oblivious. But I knew something was wrong.  I heard the thump again. I rushed down to our kitchen and opened up the door to find my 69 year old mother slumped up against the wall on the steps that led to her apartment.

“I….can’t….breathe….” she whispered, her face white.

I yelled for my husband as I struggled to lift her and slowly walked her to our couch.

“Call 911,” I said over and over again, my voice cracking. My husband had already called for an ambulance. Five minutes ticked by and still no siren. Where were they?

“You’ll be fine, Mom. Just fine. You will,” I held her hand and felt it growing colder. “You will be fine,” I repeated again. She closed her eyes. Her breathing grew raspy and faint. Panic rose in my throat as her hands started to shake.

After a few more minutes, red lights danced in our windows. My husband would stay home with our one year old and I would go alone to the hospital with my mom. As they checked her vitals, the paramedics spoke to my mom in hushed tones. After an eternity they loaded her into the back of the ambulance, rain pouring down on top of all of us. I sat in the front seat and waited, crying and shaking from the cold rain. Why weren’t they going?? Go! Just go!

The emergency room was strangely quiet.  My mom lay on a stretcher, gurgling and gasping for air and I was sitting alone next to her, a thin curtain drawn around us for privacy. After a few minutes a tired ER doctor held up her X-ray in front of the light.

“Do you understand what you’re seeing here?” he asked me. I stared straight ahead.

“This,” he pointed to the area of her lungs, “means she is full of fluid. This is why she can’t breathe. We need to determine the cause. It could be pneumonia. Or she could be suffering from congestive heart failure. Has she been sick lately? A cold?”

My mind lept back to the previous week. She had complained of her allergies. She said she was stuffed up, and was wheezing a lot. She also mentioned she had felt a bit nauseous and dizzy. But she’d never said anything about pain in her chest. She hadn’t complained of any pain at all. This couldn’t be a heart attack. Could it?

The rest of the night was a hazy blur of nurses rushing around, telling me they were doing what they could to help my mom.  At one point around 1 am, the ER doctor informed me things were very dire as they were attempting to clear her lungs but she might not have much longer to live. He suggested I talk to her right away and let her know I was there beside her. To say my goodbye.

I felt my own breath catch as I touched her hand. It was shockingly white, cold and lifeless. My mom was dying right in front of me. This was it, she was going to die and I was the only one here to say goodbye to her, as my brothers were still on their way. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t.

I wish I remembered all of what I said to her, but I don’t. What do you say to your mom who’s about to die? I remember saying, “I love you, Mom” over and over and whispering to her that everything would be okay. My tears were flowing nonstop now. At one point I made a little joke to lighten the unbearable mood and she chuckled through her gasps. She held onto my hand and told me to tell my brothers she would be fine and that she loved them all very much. She seemed to be taking this death thing much better than I was at the moment.

My brothers all arrived and we sat in a dim waiting room for hours, watching TV and waiting for our mom to either die or recover.

Around 3 am, one of the nurses poked her head into the room and with a huge smile on her face exclaimed, “She’s taken a turn!”  We all looked at each other. “For the better!” she yelled, adding, “We didn’t think she would, but she did!” We all stood up, exhausted and not believing these words were true. But my mom did round that corner; she met up with death and said, “not now, sorry, maybe next time.”

She spent the next few days in the ICU, preparing to move to another bigger hospital at Maine Medical Center. She was scheduled to have quintuple bypass surgery and her mitral valve replaced. She had suffered congestive heart failure.  Later, the doctor informed me she likely had several heart attacks over the years by the looks of the deceased heart muscle they had found.

On the day of the operation, one of their best cardiac surgeons reassurred me they’d take good care of her and they were planning on replacing her mitral valve with a valve made from animal tissue. The surgery lasted almost ten hours. The surgeon finally came to us in the waiting room and said it couldn’t have gone better, she was doing great. They ended up putting a metal ring around her valve instead of using the pig’s valve. My brothers and I all laughed at this news, “She’ll have no pig inside her after all!”

Back in the ICU, my younger brother and I stood at her bedside as she lay hooked up to a million tubes. My mom stirred awake, grumbling and moaning.  “Hey!” she croaked, “Do I have a sheep’s heart now? Am I a sheep? Baaa-baaaaa…” she murmured, giggling, the drugs still working their magic.

Today, she’s doing well and last fall marked nine years since her heart failure.  If if wasn’t for her crawling down those stairs to get help, if I hadn’t heard those little thumps at the door, she would not be here right now.


This month is heart health month.
Please, become aware of all of the signs of a heart attack and stroke.
Heart disease is the number one killer of women. Many ignore their symptoms until it’s too late.

The following is a great video that uses humor to get the point across:

Signs of Heart Failure–Mayo Clinic

Top 5 Symptoms of Heart Disease in Women–ABC News

The Warning Signs of Stroke–Web MD

82 thoughts on “What the Heart Knows

  1. wow! You’ve taken a frightful and personal event and turned it around in a way that gets our attention. Thank you. I’ll check out the links. I’m so glad you heard those “thumps” in the night, too!

    1. Please do and watch the video, I absolutely loved it. So funny and so effective! I often shudder at the fact that I almost ignored those thumps, MJ. The ER doc told me she didn’t have much longer to live and would have died on those steps if I hadn’t gone down to the door.

  2. Darla, I am so glad your Mom pulled through that. So many women have silent heart attacks, or even heart attacks with atypical symptoms. I have just had an echocardiogram of my heart (I have several leaking valves – nothing new but the condition is not improving with age). So I may be facing some surgery myself. In any event, everyone should learn the signs and symptoms of heart attack AND stroke and know what to do. Time is tissue, as we like to say in the medical professions…if in doubt, take an aspirin and call an ambulance if you even suspect it is your heart.

    Thanks for sharing this important info – the video is so typical of busy women everywhere…

    1. Katy, the doctor and I talked at length about her previous heart attacks. He wanted her to think back and try to pinpoint when she thought she might have had one. There were a few times when my mom did remember feeling very sweaty and had pain in her chest. She ignored it. So this congestive heart failure was just one big bang that all those heart attacks were leading up to, I guess. So scary. I’m sorry you are dealing with leaky valves. Definitely something you need to keep on top of. It is amazing what they can do with surgery now, though. At Maine Med, they do it with robotic arms now! (my mom didn’t get that surgery, it wasn’t available at the time for her, so she ended up with a giant scar on her chest)

      And yes, the aspirin is crucial. I forgot to add that when we first arrived at the ER, that’s the first thing the doctor was yelling at me, if she was allergic to aspirin and if she could take one. I think the aspirin saved her.

    1. I still don’t know how I heard her down there. A gut instinct something was wrong, I guess. I had woken Jim up because I thought something was hitting the garage with the rain and wind and he said he didn’t hear anything. Thank God for small miracles!

  3. Beautifully done, Darla. I was so glad for all those other stories of your mom so that I knew this ended well.

    And isn’t that video awesome????? I watched it again.

      1. I’ve watched it a bunch of times, too. And the fact that it was done with such great humor is terrific.

        Your post was eye opening. So glad you’re a light sleeper.

      2. I know, you and I tend to appreciate the humor when it comes to such serious things.

        As for being a light sleeper, I was already wide awake. I had a one year old son sleeping in our bed between us at the time. I was ALWAYS awake back then!

  4. A beautiful, important post. Thank you for sharing and I am so glad your mom is doing well now. I think, often, women think of heart attacks as strong, dramatic, “I’m having a heart attack” events when in reality, as you clue us all in on, it can be much more subtle. Thanks for raising awareness of heart disease.

    1. That’s exactly right, with women the symptoms can be so different than a man’s and they can tend to be more vague and subtle, leaving women to just brush them off. I remember the week leading up to this event, my mom was very stuffed up and dizzy and felt like she was wheezing when she breathed, but she chalked it all up as an allergy attack. I think shortness of breath should always be investigated no matter what, just to be safe. My mom told me that during this entire event, even when she was almost dying, she didn’t feel any pain at all. Just a bit of discomfort because she couldn’t breathe. Thanks for reading, Janet.

  5. I’m glad to hear that your mom is doing well. By the judge of things, she is quite a trooper. My favorite line was, “Am I a sheep? Baaa-baaaaa…” It’s safe to assume that you inherited your mother’s funny streak. Also, I commend you for listening to that still small voice in the middle of the night.

  6. What a great ending to a scary story and an awesome reason to write it. I’m going to South Carolina to visit my 92.5 year-old grandmother in April. She’s such a love, and I’m so sad that we live so far away. Your post makes me wish I was going sooner.

  7. Reading this brought back vivid memories of watching my mom as she suffered a stroke. If she had not been with us (on vacation) when it happened, I don’t think she would have made it. The doctors determined that she had suffered several smaller strokes previously. It is so hard to see. I am glad you shared the video. It is great…..especially as young women don’t think it can happen to them.

    1. It is incredibly scary when you witness something like a stroke or heart attack. I was just talking to my mom about this post, and she said you tend to dismiss things…then you go into a bit of shock and really don’t know what to do. I found her with her phone still in her hands. She knew she had to call someone but she couldn’t remember who. Thankfully I was there for her, like what happened with your mom’s stroke. Happy to know she pulled through that as well.

  8. It’s all too true that women don’t often know the signs. My grandmother suffered from heart disease, so this is a topic that’s close to my heart, so to speak.

    Excellent post! And Jeezum Crow! I’m so glad your mom is still around.

    1. Ha! Jeezum crow! Good thing she managed to knock at my door. I was just talking to her and she said throughout the entire thing she was pretty peaceful and calm about it. Even when she knew she might be dying. She said this helps her not be afraid of death in general.

    1. It was a very eventful year, Sue. My surgery, my son’s surgery then her surgery less than a year later. I look back and think how did we get through all that? But we did and it certainly made me not sweat the small stuff!

  9. I can finally comment! Huzzah! And just watched the video – so good, on all counts. Thank you for sharing this with us. I know I already told you this, but I think it’s a miracle you heard those thumps.

  10. My heart was in my throat as I read this, Darla. So glad to hear your mom is doing well. Since George had a heart attack and has had bypass surgery, I can imagine rather clearly what your emotions were. Amazing that your mother was able to get your attention that fateful night!

    1. Sorry you know what that’s like, Susan. When it happens you kind of go on auto-pilot, it’s all just too overwhelming and shocking to handle. Later on, I asked my mom why she didn’t call me or call 911, but she was too confused to remember what she had to do. Thank goodness she had the power to crawl down those steps and knock.

  11. That’s a great video, Darla. So many people still have the impression (I was one of them) that a heart attack is a chest clutching, fall to the floor, blacking out sort of experience. Thanks for passing along the word that the symptoms can be subtle or not necessarily indicative of a heart attack. I’m so glad that your mom was okay.

    1. It is very scary to think you might just have dizziness or nausea. From what I’ve read, men tend to have the more obvious signs like crushing chest pain. I think with women too, it’s more of they feel embarrassed by asking for help and that really needs to be put aside.

      1. You hit the nail on the head. It’s the embarrassment factor. I was thinking that as I watched the video. I don’t know that I’d call 911 until I was lying on the floor like that woman. I’d be afraid of putting someone out. Me: “imagine calling an ambulance and it’s just gas or something.” So what, right?

  12. singleworkingmomswm

    Thanks, Darla! I started crying when I was reading about your mom dying in front of you in the bed, and then I remembered she couldn’t be dead because you blog about your funny conversations with her all of the time! LOL! But, regardless, thank goodness everything worked out the way it did, and thank you for sharing the links about women’s heart health. I didn’t know that women actually die from heart failure more than men these days, and I certainly didn’t know the symptoms. Thank you, thank you! 🙂 XOXO

    1. I know, this was a story where I was hoping the readers would remember she IS still alive! Course some readers don’t know that fact. I’d been wanting to write about this for so long. We always hear about cancer in the news and I thought maybe putting the spotlight on the number one killer out there, heart disease, would help a bit. It’s something I am very wary of as it tends to be a genetic thing. Thanks for reading it!

  13. A couple years ago I got a physical and established that there was a history of heart disease in my family. It took a ridiculously long time for me to put it together.

    People in my family are at risk for heart disease…

    I’m in my family…


    And I couldn’t help but laugh at the nurse pausing after “she’s taken a turn.” That’s like saying, “We need to talk…”


    “About how much I love you!”

    1. I know. It’s really dawned on me now that I need to pay attention to my health and my heart. My dad died of heart disease at 53, my mom almost died of it…I’m 42 years old….Oh yeah. Must take care of my heart!

      The thing with the nurse: that was one of those moments that will forever stick in my mind because why in the hell would you yell out “she’s taken a turn!” then NOT elaborate??! Granted, she was grinning from ear to ear when she said it, but my brothers and I were in a very fragile state at that point. I remember thinking, is she new to nursing? Does she not know she almost gave all of US a heart attack?!

  14. Jeezum crow! Obviously, it wasn’t her time. She had many more years ahead of her to drive you nuts. 😉 And how fortunate that you heard her and were able to get her medical attention when she needed it! You should get daughter of the year, just for that alone!!

    That’s a great video. I love Elizabeth Banks. This is a great reminder, especially for moms that just run themselves into the ground, only caring about getting the kids to school and house cleaned up, etc. and not paying attention to what their bodies might be telling them. Bravo, Darla.

    1. Ha! You said it. Many MANY more years of her driving us all up a wall. Like God intended. Jeezum crow!

      That video is great because it’s sad but true…us women tend to downplay our own symptoms. We only think of others’ needs and never our own. And when Elizabeth felt embarrassed by calling 911 “Sorry to bother you…” that is something I would totally do.

  15. Wow– I’m so glad your mom was able to get herself to your garage door and that your instincts kicked in to hear her and help her! That story would have turned out way differently otherwise (and we wouldn’t have any Jeezum crow references– how sad!)

    Thanks for posting the video as well. It’s a myth that only ‘certain types’ of people have heart disease or suffer heart attacks. It can happen to *anyone*, so it’s best to know the signs!

    1. Jim and I can laugh about that night now. Sometimes, he’ll say to me “remember that time? when you saved your mother’s life? Remember?” and I’ll say, “Oh yeah! That’s right! She almost died in our garage! And you wanted to go back to sleep because you said you heard nothing!”

  16. Yikes, that was a close one, wasn’t it?? Thanks for this post, Darla—heart disease runs rampant in the women in my family, and a lot of women I know still don’t think they’re at risk because “it’s a man’s disease.” Well, no, it isn’t.

  17. It’s great to get the word out there!
    What I didn’t realize is that congestive heart failure is a condition where fluid collects in the lungs. My dad is turning 87 on Friday and has fought it like a trooper for years. Now he is on a no-salt diet and medication. It’s amazing how well he has done with only 30% of heart function!
    Great story and I am glad you heard the knocks too!

    1. Congestive heart failure can be chronic or acute. Since my mom’s surgery years ago, she’s actually enjoyed perfect health. I think they pretty much patched up her heart. She felt like she had been given a new heart after it was all over. Sorry your dad has it, but glad to know he’s doing well on meds.

  18. Your mom is a lucky woman, geesh! How scary! And what a great public service announcement…I mean that in a sincere way. No, not like this is One To Grow On and you’re Kim Fields or anything. But, really, I am always shocked by this fact about it being a leading killer in women when considering how the media portrays heart attacks and the like as old man conditions, a la Fred Sanford. Thank you for sharing this eye-opening story.

  19. Part of the problem is that the symptoms of a heart attack can be similar to those caused by other conditions, including indigestion or anxiety. A couple of false alarms, and it’s easy to ignore it when the real thing happens.

    Clearly, you inherited at least half of your sense of humor from your Mom.

    1. Exactly, I think with women, there’s more of a tendency to brush the symptoms off because either they feel embarrassed or they don’t feel like they want to “bother” the doctor. I would think if you’re having shortness of breath (like my mom was but she didn’t tell anyone) that would be a big sign you need to get it checked out.

  20. I’m so glad that you were there for your Mom when she most needed you, and that everything turned out well. Too many times, we seem to minimize our health problems because we don’t want to trouble anyone. It’s a good thing your senses were tuned in to the red flags.

    Loved the video too, Darla.

    1. I shudder to think if I hadn’t gone downstairs to investigate, Judy. My mom was pretty much out of energy and collapsed on the stairs outside the door. She barely had enough strength to thump on the door those few times.

  21. Wow, what a powerful post (and I loved the video as well)! My Mom had a mitral valve transplant at age 69, too — this was way back in 1986, and the whole memory still haunts me. Apparently, her arteries were almost completely blocked, too — a condition they overlooked in the catheterization– and she died of a massive heart attack three days after surgery. The details of your mom’s cold, cold hands broke my heart, as I remember that all too well — but so happy it turned out better for you & your family! I’ve always felt like I got robbed of so many years with my mom that should have been …. so the information you included on the signs of heart attack and disease was incredibly important. THANKS for that!

    1. Oh, Betty, I am so deeply sorry you went through all that and I am so sorry you’ve lost your mom. Just reading about your story makes me cry. My greatest wish is for other women to be able to recognize these signs and take action before it’s too late.

      I am super aware of all the signs of heart problems now. My dad died of a massive heart attack 21 years ago at the age of 53 and his main symptoms were nausea and shortness of breath. But he didn’t tell anyone. I wasn’t there when he died. But he was scheduled for surgery the next morning but didn’t make it through the night. His arteries were all almost 100% blocked at that point.

  22. I’m glad to read she came through it. Very scary, conditions of the heart.

    My MIL died unexpectedly a few months back when a heart valve condition was discovered. Being 79 at the time, she ditched the surgical fix and opted for comfort measures only. She lasted only two more weeks. I never even got to say goodbye.

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