Jill Morin nearly died after going into cardiac arrest. Now she’s determined to help women make time to take care of their hearts.
TUESDAY, March 27, 2012 — For Jill Morin, Good Friday morning, April 10, 2009, looked a lot like a typical day before a holiday weekend.
The day before, the 38-year-old mom had packed up her four kids and driven from their home in Wake Forest, N.C., to a vacation house in Sunset Beach, where they were to spend the week for a family reunion. Her husband, Tony, had to work but planned to meet them there on Saturday.
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The house, soon to be packed with roughly 25 people, was barely full that first day at the beach. The phones weren’t even turned on yet.
It was the start of what promised to be a fun-filled week. But that all changed when Jill went into cardiac arrest.
Five Years Without a Doctor’s Appointment
The last time Jill had seen a doctor was in 2004. She took her kids for regular check-ups but rarely saw the need to make her own appointment. “You don’t go unless you’re sick,” she says of her attitude at the time.
And Jill wasn’t sick. The team mom who did everything for everyone and never said no considered herself healthy.
Yet, looking back, she remembers feeling completely winded at times after climbing up the stairs. Occasionally, her legs swelled. Save for that, Jill’s on-the-go lifestyle left her in great physical shape. Even though her mom, Kay LaVelle, had heart disease — cardiomyopathy — a condition that weakens and enlarges the heart — she thought nothing of the subtle warning signs that she herself had might have a heart problem.
CPR, a Coma, and a Familiar Diagnosis
That Friday, at the vacation house, Jill’s uncle, Tom, performed CPR on her after she went into cardiac arrest until paramedics arrived. They continued CPR for another hour. Jill’s mother returned from running errands to the commotion of ambulances. She begged them to continue. The EMTs shocked Jill 16 times before they could hear a regular heart rhythm again.
“I just kept telling the paramedics she was healthy,” Kay says.
Jill had been in a coma for 72 hours when she awoke in a hospital room, confused. She remembered nothing from the day of her cardiac arrest — or from the previous two months of her life. Not being at the shore house, not the job she had recently started or the people who worked there.
She also didn’t know had bad things had gotten while she was out — how doctors had told her stunned husband and mother to start thinking about Jill’s last wishes. While Jill was unconscious, doctors lowered her body temperature to 91.5 degrees. Called therapeutic hypothermia, this is a form of treatment for cardiac arrest. Cooling the body 7 degrees below normal slows damage to the brain and other organs that begins when the heart stops and restarts.
For Jill, therapeutic hypothermia worked.
Though she felt groggy and weak (moving around, she says, was “like trying to get cooked spaghetti to walk”), she recuperated quickly.
The cause of her cardiac arrest was dilated cardiomyopathy, the same heart condition Kay had been diagnosed with eight years earlier.
A Rare Mother-Daughter Bond
The particular type of cardiomyopathy Jill and her mother have, dilated cardiomyopathy, primarily affects the heart’s main pumping chamber, the left ventricle. It can cause heart failure, irregular heartbeat, blood clots, and even sudden death.
While outside factors — from birth defects to infections — can lead to dilated cardiomyopathy, the main cause is genetic.
Although the condition tends to run in families, Jill’s cardiologist hadn’t personally seen a case in which both a mother and a daughter had dilated cardiomyopathy in his career until Jill and Kay came along.
“It’s a known but rare situation to see such a combination in the family,” says Jill’s cardiologist, Pankaj Parikh, MD, who is based in Raleigh, N.C. “They’ve both fought brave and hard,” he says of the duo.
Eight years earlier, Kay’s diagnosis had unfolded by way of coincidence. A trip to the doctor’s office for a sinus infection turned into a hospital stay, then nearly a spot on a heart transplant list. She was only 52 at the time and in “such denial,” she says. Luckily, before doctors had to put Kay on the transplant list, her medication finally kicked in, and she started to recover.
Since her own recovery, Jill has had all four of her children — one daughter and three sons, ages 8 to 18 — screened for heart disease and happily reports they’re fine.
Taking Health to Heart
Almost three years later, Jill tells the story of her cardiac arrest based on how her family members tell it. But she and Kay share the story with as many women as they can by speaking out, whether it’s at a public event or in line at the grocery store. Their voices became even louder when they were chosen at a national casting call in Raleigh to be national spokespeople as part of the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women movement.
Depending on the crowd, Jill says their spread-the-word arsenal includes short versions and long versions, plus statistics on heart disease in women.
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, not breast cancer, as Jill and Kay and many other women had thought. In fact, more women die of heart disease each year than from all forms of cancer combined.
These days Jill and Kay work together as real estate agents. They keep an eye on each other. Kay takes medication, Jill wears a pacemaker. They both eat a healthy diet.
Around the house, Jill has gotten used to doing what she can at a slower pace. Lifting laundry isn’t necessarily an issue, but she tires easily. To adapt, her priorities have shifted slightly. She knows the importance of taking care of her own health. If the beds don’t get made, she’s learned to say, “Oh well.” Regardless of what the house looks like, what matters most is that she’s there.
“I can’t imagine my husband raising my kids alone,” she says. “I think about that every day.”