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A Day Forever Etched in my Mind

Tuesday, August 6, 2019 is a day that is etched in my mind forever.  It started as my days usually do; up early and in to work.  The day promised to be a busy one, as it was clinical day for new orientees and the day would be spent demonstrating skills they need to their job.  As usual, we had a large group, and desk time on these days is limited.

Around mid-morning, I had a few minutes to quickly check emails. There was one from my mom telling me she didn’t feel well.  She had been up since the middle of the night, was sweating profusely and her chest hurt.  She had cancelled a urology doctor’s appointment because of how she felt.  In my haste and hurry, I quickly replied asking her to describe the feeling in her chest; did it feel heavy like she was getting a cold, or was it actual chest pain? Not giving it any more thought, I returned to my orientees and proceeded on with my day.  

When the rush of the day ended and I was able to return to my desk, there was a reply from my mom.  She said she felt like she had a bad case of indigestion and if only she could get some sleep, she knew she would feel better.  As I recall, the time was approximately 2:00.  For the first time that day, the light bulb went on in my mind.  Profuse sweating and a feeling of a “bad case of indigestion;” two classic signs of a heart attack.  I quickly emailed her back stating she was having signs of a heart attack and suggested she seek help.  

I still didn’t feel panicked (maybe it was denial?) as my mom had no history suggesting anything cardiac; her blood pressure was well controlled, her cholesterol was normal, there was no cardiac history in her family, and her health overall was good although she was once again beginning to experience frequent urinary tract infections.  I received an email from her at 3:30 informing me of an acquaintance of hers whom she heard had passed away.

At 4:30, I packed up my things to go home. On my way to the parking garage my phone rang, but since it was buried on the bottom of my cart I decided to wait and catch the message later. The ride home was typical 4:30 traffic. About ½ mile from home my phone rang again; it was my brother in Texas. Stopped at a red light, I decided to answer. He asked where I was (in the middle of rush hour traffic) and told me mom had died a short time ago. I don’t remember the rest of the ride home. All I remember hearing was that my dad found her in the bedroom and called 911 but it was too.  How could this be? I had only “talked” to her an hour ago?

My parents lived 3 hours north of Milwaukee and my aunts and cousins were staying with my dad until one of my brothers and I could get there. I barely remember throwing things into a suitcase before we were on our way.

How could this have happened? My mom was my best friend and the strongest person I knew. She was rarely sick, and when she was, she continued on as usual.   She couldn’t be dead.

I don’t exactly remember when it hit me, but when it did, the thoughts hit hard.  My mom had told me that morning of the symptoms she was having.  Sweating and feelings of indigestion. Classic signs of a heart attack. I’m a nurse for heaven’s sake…I knew what she was experiencing and told her, but that’s all I did.  

Shortly, the “whys and what ifs” started, followed by horrendous guilt that I carry to this day. 

Why hadn’t the information in her email stop me in my tracks?  Why didn’t I stop what I was doing and call her?  I knew she would never call 911 on her own, but what if I had called for her? My cousin is a first responder (and ended up being the first one to answer the 911 call later that day) and I went to school with the fire chief.   Would the outcome have been different had I intervened and called that morning and asked them to check on her?

What if she had kept her appointment with the urologist? They certainly would have called 911.  Would the outcome have been different?

A friend of hers told me at the funeral that she had seen mom in the pharmacy that afternoon. Mom had told her I thought she was having a heart attack, and supposedly said “I don’t have time for that.”  What if the friend had called 911?  Would the outcome have been different?

Had she called out to my hard-of-hearing dad when she was in the bedroom?  Had he heard her and called 911 would the outcome have been different?

These questions and the guilt continue to haunt me to this day. If only I had done more, would my mom still be here?

I wish I could say the story ended there. My siblings and I moved my dad closer to us as he no longer could nor wanted to stay in the house where the love of his life passed while he watched TV.  He would be staying with my sister, at least for the time being. A week after moving him, I got a call from my sister early on a Sunday morning. Dad’s left arm “wasn’t working right”. I immediately drove over. He felt weakness in his right hand, but there was no facial droop or trouble with his speech.  He agreed to go to the Emergency Room where he was diagnosed with a slight stroke and Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (broken heart syndrome). (I had heard of the syndrome, but until then hadn’t realized it was an actual diagnosis).  He spent 4 days inpatient then transferred to rehab for a 10 day stay where he learned to adjust doing things with his weakened right hand.  He did well.   

He returned to my sister’s on a Wednesday evening. My sister had some out of town business on Saturday, so I spent Friday night at her house so she could get an early start.  I still remember the smile on his face when he saw me. We made plans to go for ice cream on Saturday; something he always looked forward to.  Around 9:00 that morning I went to check on him. He had gotten up and dressed, laid back down, took off his glasses, set them down next to him and passed away peacefully.  

To say those 5 weeks last fall changed my life forever is an understatement.  As I mentioned, the what if’s and the guilt of not doing more continue to plague me.  I have been a nurse for almost 40 years, and I’ve taught CPR for over 30.  I have taught countless people the signs and symptoms of heart attack and stroke, and what actions to take if a patient or family member develops symptoms.  I have performed CPR at work and hear stories every class about someone who has or has known someone who’s used the skills.  I end many of my classes discussing the fact that, despite the outcome, performing CPR when indicated has given the patient a chance they wouldn’t have had if no action had been taken.  

I now include my mom’s story in my classes when appropriate.  My message? Recognize the signs and take action whether you’re at the scene or not. Had I done so, would my mom’s outcome have been different?  

Till my last day I will always wonder what if…? 

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