When Your Heart Stops Beating

I noticed her lips first. They were gray and chapped.

I moved closer to her bed. In my left hand, I squeezed the markers I had just grabbed from on top of her dresser. They were for my younger cousin, who was waiting for them in the next room.

“Hey,” I said.

No response.



I pushed on her arm, rocking her thin body as it lay on her day bed. She didn’t move.

I walked out of her room and went to my mother. She was sitting on her bed talking on the phone.

“I think something’s wrong with Dodi,” I told her. I couldn’t say anything else. I felt if I used more words the situation would be more real.

My mother walked to Dodi’s room and did the same things I had done: said her name, shook her body, wished it were all a nightmare. She dialed 911, and the operator guided her in CPR. The paramedics arrived a few minutes later. My 18-year-old self stood in the corner of her room and watched them clammer around my aunt.

“Maybe you should leave the room,” one of them said to me.

I shook my head. I needed to be in that room. I needed to watch what was going on. I needed to make sure it was real.

After about five minutes, the paramedics lifted my aunt onto a gurney and wheeled her through our house and out the front door. We followed the ambulance to the hospital; it was only about a mile away. We waited in the lobby until a doctor ushered us into a consultation room.

I can’t remember the exact words the doctor used. I imagine it was something like, “She didn’t make it” or “We did all we could, but…” I’m pretty sure he didn’t say, “She died,” because most people don’t. They use other phrases, like “passed away,” to cushion the blow. It never works, and we all know it, but yet we still do it.

The doctor told us her heart likely stopped beating while she was sleeping. Her cause of death was listed as cardiac arrest. She was 57.

I filled those solemn days after her death with hours of research. I wanted to figure out what had happened to my aunt, a woman who had lived with me and had been one of my best friends since I was 5 years old.

In my research, I learned a cardiac arrest occurs when “the heart’s electrical system malfunctions,” according to the American Heart Association.

“In cardiac arrest death results when the heart suddenly stops working properly,” the American Heart Association states on its website.

A cardiac arrest can happen for a number of reasons, and I won’t pretend to know why my aunt’s heart suddenly stopped working properly. I believe she had a heart attack prior to her heart stopping. She had complained of back pain and tiredness the evening before and vomited into the sink at some point over night. I didn’t know it then, but those were all subtle signs of a heart attack.

I try not to live in the past — in the could of, would of, should of. I don’t know if my aunt would have survived if we had known she had symptoms of a heart attack. I don’t even know if she did in fact have a heart attack.

I do know, however, that being familiar with the symptoms of a heart attack, particularly the subtle symptoms that often occur in women, can save lives. I’m sharing this story in hopes our family’s tragedy will help save someone else’s family member.

February is American Heart Month. Become educated on cardiovascular health. Obtain knowledge that could save your life or others’.

What better Valentine’s Day gift is there?

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