How a daughter has taken grief and loss and turned it into a mission to educate herself and others on women’s cardiovascular health.

By Heather L. Whitley
February 04, 2021
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Brenda Burch Skiing
Credit: Heather L. Whitley

The words replayed over and over again in my head as I stared out the car window. "Bun…" That's short for "Bunny", a nickname I earned for being born on Easter.  "I don't know how to tell you this." It was my dad, his voice like I've never heard it before. So weak, so feeble. "Your mom has just passed away." I leap out of my work chair and start spinning in a circle, wrapping myself in the phone cord. "What? What?" I just keep repeating that word. The world melts around me. "It happened so quick," Dad whispers. I can hear him start to cry. "Daddy, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry." This verbal repetition continues as I fall to my knees, unable to withstand the weight of the reality that is about to change my life, forever.

Heather and Parents, baby
Credit: Heather L. Whitley

Brenda Lee Burch grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. She was a self-proclaimed tomboy with a boundless energy that bubbled out of her small 5-foot-2-inch frame.  After earning her master's degree, she traveled the world as a teacher for the Department of Defense before meeting the love of her life at a ski club in Japan.  When motherhood became her full-time job, she approached it like everything else she did, with a fierce passion and a love so deep it often brought her to tears. At my wedding, her blue-green eyes twinkled with pure joy as she twisted across the dance floor, despite the constraints of her lengthy dress. But now, in an instant, that infectious spirit was gone.

Brenda Burch Mother of the Bride
Credit: Heather L. Whitley

Dad said she had been gardening when she came inside the house, complaining of sharp pains across her shoulders and chest. She assured Dad that everything was OK. She had felt these before, and they would just go away. This time, however, was different.  "After a few minutes, I looked at her," Dad told me. "She looked gray." He convinced her to get in the car so they could drive to her doctor's office.  By the time they arrived, Mom's pain was so intense that she laid down on the floor, right in front of the reception desk. Within minutes, Dad found himself chasing after an ambulance. "I must have hit every red light," he muttered in a desperate and angered tone.  When he finally got to the hospital, Dad was ushered into a "quiet" room.  My heart ached thinking about him sitting alone in that room, while his bride of 35 years fought for her life down the hall.  Moments later, a doctor came in. "We did everything we could," he said. Mom had suffered a massive heart attack in the ambulance and despite their best efforts, they could not save her.

My husband and I drove through the night to reach my childhood home.  I sat numb in the passenger seat while he called my family members, quietly delivering the news. My head throbbed from disbelief, sadness and confusion. I thought about the phone call Mom and I had just a few weeks prior. Halfway through the conversation she stated abruptly, "I want you to know that if anything ever happens to me, I've lived a very full life." I got annoyed with her, brushing off the comment. "C'mon Mom, don't talk like that." But she persisted, her voice cracking. "No really, I've lived such a good life, I'm so happy."  Even now, that phone call makes me shudder. Did she know what was about to happen? If so, why didn't she tell me? Didn't she recognize the signs? How did her doctors miss this? What if I become a mom someday? How will my children grow up without her? What if she had just called 911…

Brenda Burch headshot
Credit: Heather L. Whitley
Heather and Mom in NYC
Credit: Heather L. Whitley

At some point, I stopped asking questions and started seeking answers. My career as a TV producer gave me a natural affinity for research.  I learned that Mom had visited her doctor a few months before her death, when she had first felt those chest pains. They ran a series of stress tests but found no red flags.  I interviewed my own doctors, asking how I could prevent this from happening to me. More than once, the response was, "It's too bad they didn't do an autopsy." A painful reminder of the 20-something daughter and the husband in shock who didn't question Mom's doctor when he said an autopsy wasn't necessary. In 2004, almost exactly two years after Mom's death, the American Heart Association launched its annual "Go Red for Women" campaign.  I funneled all of the heart health knowledge I'd been gathering into "Go Red" events at work.  Each year, the event grew with more participants, more activities and more memorable moments that helped my own heart heal.  

Heather Whitley Go Red Pin
CNN Go Red Event
Credit: Heather L. Whitley

After years of interrogating doctors, I finally found one who listened to my story and took my concerns seriously.  Based on what I told him, he said Mom had likely suffered a "Widowmaker" heart attack. The doctor said the warning signs for this type of cardiac event would not have been detected by the stress tests she was given.  Instead, she should have done a Coronary Calcium Scan.  This simple and affordable X-ray would have shown the deadly build up in her arteries and perhaps, saved her life.  I swallowed the lump in my throat, thanked him and promptly scheduled my first heart scan.  

Heather Whitley Hugs Mom's Leg
Credit: Heather L. Whitley

It's been nearly twenty years since I got that phone call from Dad.  Some days, it feels like yesterday.  There are a million amazing things about my mom that I hope to emulate with my own two kids. But losing my life to a heart attack is not one of them. So I'll just keep asking questions, keep digging for answers and keep sharing Mom's story. And maybe, just maybe, my story will have a different ending. 

WATCH: Touching Quotes to Remember Your Mom This Mother's Day

For more information on the warning signs of heart disease and what to do about it, please visit this website. Friday, February 5 is National Wear Red Day to Go Red for Women. Join us in donning your best red outfit and spreading awareness of cardiovascular disease.