Good afternoon. My name is Brea Carlson.
It has already been 18 years since I lost my mother, but even now as a young mother with two children of my own, I feel I am also a 13-year-old eighth grader who has just witnessed her mother’s death on the first day of school.
Most people who knew my mother remember her laugh first and foremost. Mom didn’t seem to know how to giggle. I have never been able to picture her as a giggly teenager. She always laughed whole-heartedly, throwing her head back so far you could see the fillings in her teeth!
Mom was a speech therapist in an elementary school. There was a decorative wooden block in her classroom that, in my memory, sums up her outlook. It said, “Life is for living, love is for giving.” It seems simple and trite, but, save for the memories of the mother-daughter fights we had, this little slogan for living and loving was my mother in a nutshell.
Mom kept in great shape. She took brisk walks when the weather was chilly (we lived in the desert of Texas, so it was never too cold), and she swam laps almost every day in the summer. She was so conscientious about her health and of those she loved that she once scheduled two back-to-back mammogram appointments so a friend of hers, who had been putting the test off, would have no choice but to go.
So why is my mother, a healthy, strong, and vivacious woman, not physically here today?
Unfortunately, my mother fell through the cracks in a way that women often do, even now, so many years after her death. For about three months, Mom was told that she was having panic attacks and that if they continued she should return to the doctor. She chronicled every chest pain she had.
We found her notes in her date book after her death – she woke up with pain around 4:30AM the day she died. She wrote down the time the clock read, and that she should call the doctor that day. According to her death certificate, she died at 8:18PM. She had a heart attack for almost 16 hours!
My sister, Tamara, and I watched as the final hours of her life flew past in a blur. Mom picked me up from my first day of school, dropped off a friend, then dropped me at home before heading off to the store, mainly to pick up school supplies. When she came home, she practically threw my supplies at me, let the dogs out in the backyard, and started crying as she shut the back door.
She mumbled an answer when I asked what was wrong. At first I thought maybe she was annoyed with me, because I hadn’t been able to sleep the night before and had crawled in bed with her to sleep. She had admonished me for sleeping at odd hours all summer, but then she had snuggled me and stroked my hair until I fell asleep. So, when she mumbled an answer, I let it go and watched her walk to the back of the house.
The next thing I remember, Tamara was walking toward me and using a tone of voice I couldn’t place. I heard something about calling the doctor. My mom was following behind Tamara, gripping her left arm as if in pain.
A few minutes later, Tamara was about to take my mother to the Emergency Room when her doctor returned my sister’s initial phone call to give us instructions. I ran and got my sister from the car before she left.
Shortly thereafter, my mother stumbled back into the kitchen, using various objects along the way from the garage to support her weight. As she slid to the kitchen floor, she told my sister to call 911. As Tamara spoke to the dispatcher, I watched my mother, who was on her knees, place her head on the floor, her hands clasped behind her knees. She started rocking back and forth on her forehead, obviously trying to deal with pain.
I stood helpless for a bit and asked Mom if there was anything I should do. Some of the last words she would ever speak to me were something along the lines of “No, sweetie. It’s going to be ok. The pain is getting better now.” My brain quickly reviewed all the information I had been taught in school or heard on television. I told Mom I was going outside to make sure the ambulance found the house – our street number was difficult to see from the road. She said that was a good idea.
I stood in the yard, not sure which end of the street to watch. I heard sirens, and when I saw the fire truck, I started yelling and waving my arms, but they turned the other way! My sister came out, crying, as I stood frozen on the lawn, my stomach in my throat. She told me to go get them.
I caught up with the fire truck and got their attention. One of the paramedics ran back to the house with me, carrying equipment. When I arrived back at the kitchen, Mom was unconscious, not responding to the paramedic’s repeated “Ma’am? Ma’am? Can you hear me Ma’am?”
We waited at the hospital for a long time. It seemed like eternity. Finally a doctor came in and started a long explanation before saying the words we all dreaded…but my sister interrupted her, saying flatly, “She’s dead, isn’t she.” The doctor said, “Yes. She has died.” The room spun, and I couldn’t stop screaming “NO! NO! NO!”
A few months ago, I found my own diaries from that pivotal time in my life. A month after she died, I wrote:
I love my mom very much, I always will. I wish she could have lived to see me go to college, or even get my braces off, or graduate from high school. She was the best mother and person I can think of, and I can't imagine what my life will be like without her.
Years from now, I hope time travel is possible so that I can make my mother get help when she had her chest pains at the beginning of the summer of '94 (before my 8th grade year). Maybe it wouldn't save her, maybe it would be useless, but all I want to do now is change the past, but that can't be done and I know that.
We can’t change the past, but we do have an opportunity to change the future. There are still women who need to know the risks and warning signs of heart disease. We have the ability to change their lives…by sharing this message…and by supporting the work of the American Heart Association and Go Red For Women.