‘If you want to say goodbye, you’d better come now.’ She’d only had a bad cold. She died before she hit the floor.’: Mom dies suddenly of congenital cardiac arrhythmia, leaves behind 3 toddlers

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“Though I live in southeastern Virginia, my job as a nurse caseworker takes me to several other east coast locations. On Friday, November 16, 2018, I left work from one of my offices in North Carolina, eager to get to my daughter Brittany’s house to see her and the boys. Leaving work could not come soon enough, and the drive to her home seemed to take forever. Brittany and her fiancé, Scott, were growing apart. She had been talking to us about moving back home, to Virginia, with the boys after the holidays. I am certain being parents to three children under the age of two was difficult for even the strongest of relationships.

Though Britt was raised in Williamsburg with her dad, Jeff, and I, after her first pregnancy and giving birth to the twins, she became curious about her biological mother. So, Brittany and Scott decided to move to North Carolina to connect with the grandmother of her twin boys, and establish independence with her new family. It was difficult for Jeff and I, but we understood our adult daughter needed to spread her wings.

Courtesy of Mitzi DeBusk

Upon my arrival, I was greeted by Britt’s smiling face and laugh. We kidded around and she gave me her usual verbal jabs. The twins were happy to see their Mimi, and the baby just woke from a nap. We played, laughed, and talked about the coming week, as it would be Thanksgiving in six days. I was bringing the twin boys back with me, so Brittany could plan and get ready for Black Friday. How she loved shopping! She begged me to take the baby, but that was too much too manage since I had to work – two toddlers and an infant is a handful! We hugged and told each other ‘love you’ while looking forward to Thanksgiving. Off I traveled, home to Williamsburg, Virginia, with 24½-month-old twins and a three-hour trip from Britt’s home in NC.

The next day, November 17th, Brittany called to say she had a bad cold. The nurse in me told her to push fluids, keep hydrated, and rest. She was taking over-the-counter medications. Again, we said ‘I love you’ and I told her the twins were doing fine and we could not wait to see her and the baby for Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 18, 2018 at 8:30 a.m. we received the phone call that forever changed our lives. Scott called in a panic to say Britt had collapsed, and EMS were on site working on her. I called – no, I screamed – to Jeff who was outside. My husband, Britt’s father, came running in, thinking something had happened with the twins. I guess, looking back, I must have had a different voice in that scream, as all I could say to him when he came in was, ‘It’s Britt. It’s Britt.’ And I handed him the phone.

Still not knowing what was happening, I dressed, got the twins ready, and was in the car headed to NC within 15 minutes. Jeff was driving. I stayed on the phone trying to get information and contact family. Scott called me back to say the medic wanted to talk to me. All the medic could say is she had a heart rhythm and they were transporting her to the local hospital. No further information, as he was unable to answer my questions.

Courtesy of Mitzi DeBusk

It may be worthwhile to mention I am a cardiac-trained RN in ICU and ER. I knew what to ask and was gauging the situation as if I was expecting the ambulance to arrive with the patient in the ER. I kept calling Scott for updated info. Finally, the ER doctor called me. He stated Brittany had sustained a total of five cardiac arrests and they were medi-flighting her to East Carolina University Hospital, as they are a larger hospital, better equipped to care for her. He was nice enough to give me directions. So, we rerouted and continued driving.

We arrived at ECU Hospital before her medi-copter arrived. We were directed to the ICU where she would be taken. Once she arrived and was assessed by the medical team, they came out to ask us what we thought might have happened. There were so many people there, and some gave their explanation without knowing the correct info. Diet pills, interactions with cold medicine, etc. Jeff and I were shocked to learn Britt had been in the ER the day before, was diagnosed with a cold, and given a prescription for Claritin (an allergy medication). She had not told me about this on the phone when I spoke with her the day before.

I knew she had been to the ER a couple of months before (two months, at the most) for a syncopal episode event. A syncopal episode is when a person faints/passes out, and it’s typically triggered by a sudden, temporary drop in blood flow to the brain, which leads to loss of consciousness and muscle control. A person with sudden cardiac arrest also loses consciousness suddenly, but will die without immediate medical attention. Following that episode, I had asked Brittany about a cardiac workup, only for her to tell me the doctor in the ER blamed it on dehydration and migraines. (I later received a copy of her labs. They were all normal and there was no dehydration.) Having migraines causes a person to pass out, but it is not a cause.

The doctors listened to us and told us she had already received TPA in the other ER, so if she had a clot it was already dissolved – but they still expected a pulmonary embolism. She was given Narcan, as they wanted to rule out a drug overdose. The one thing I can say about my daughter, is she never, ever took drugs. And she could not stand the taste of alcohol. Thankfully, that was never a concern of ours.

Courtesy of Mitzi DeBusk

Once the medical team headed back, Jeff decided to go downstairs with the others to get the boys. We had taken them to their other grandparent’s home, as the hospital was no place for them. I decided to stay in the waiting room because I wanted to be nearby. While Jeff was taking care of the twins, a doctor came out to the waiting room, looking around and appearing confused. I approached him with trepidation, as I knew something was not right. He said if we wanted to say goodbye to our daughter, we needed to come now. I was frantic. I called Jeff. Once again with all of us there, we were told Britt had suffered a massive coronary event and this was it. Knowing what I knew as a nurse was not helping me. I knew my daughter had died before she hit the floor in her home.

Seeing Brittany was unspeakable. She was on a ventilator. Five life-saving meds were pumping into her. The monitors showing their bleeps, configurations, numbers. I knew them too well. I knew she was gone. But Jeff, this being his only child, I could not tell him. We arranged a family meeting with the medical team later that evening. During this meeting, they would not answer my medical questions, as they did not feel it was appropriate. They were protecting the others from the grim reality of the prognosis. It was decided to make her a DNR (do not resuscitate), since she was maxed out on life saving medications already. But they wanted to induce hypothermia, to see if there was a way to reverse any brain damage.

Monday, November 19th – no change. The hypothermia had no effect on brain activity. She was just lying there with medications keeping her heart going and a ventilator breathing for her. All I could do was hold her hand and talk to her, tell her how much I loved her, how much those three babies need her, and beg her to come back to us. Her dad, my loving husband, did nothing but weep and hold her hand and kiss her. Others came in and did the same.

Each time a nurse came into the room, I asked if there was any change. Each time I was told, ‘No, and there will not be.’ I guess they were being realistic, but miracles do happen. Later that day, we met with the medical team and decided to remove life support. It was scheduled for the next day. This gave time for all family to be notified, in the event they wanted to see Brittany before she was gone.

Courtesy of Mitzi DeBusk

Jeff and I never left the hospital from the time we arrived Sunday morning. We slept in the waiting room with homeless people, and I could not sleep for fear I would miss her last breath. I found myself helping the homeless, and tending to wounds they had suffered due to bike accidents and falls. It gave me a purpose. In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, I went to Britt’s bedside and asked the nurse what to expect so I could prepare my husband and myself. This is when I learned our precious daughter had signed her donor card and was a viable candidate.

Tuesday, November 20th – I told Jeff of Britt’s desire to be an organ donor and she was a candidate. We met with the donor coordinator at NC Donor Services later that morning. It was decided her lungs, heart valves, liver, and kidney would be donated. Jeff did not want to relinquish Britt’s eyes, as that was one of her beautiful assets. Those blue eyes. So, now the donor process began. Britt had to have a brain arteriogram, and that evening, just before 7:00 p.m., our daughter was pronounced dead.

To hear these words made the finality too real. It was so profound and made our grief so much deeper than I imagined. There was no hope anymore. The only miracle in this horrible situation was she was an organ donor and was going to save other lives.

And then something even more special did happen. We were approached by the donor society and asked to donate both of Brittany’s hands. Jeff immediately said no, but I asked him to listen to them. They described the likely candidate who would be the recipient. All I could think was our daughter’s hands would hold babies, children, and loved ones again. I convinced my husband to allow this selfless act, and he agreed. Brittany was the first donor in NC history to donate both her hands.

Wednesday, November 21st – the longest day. We were to walk with Britt to the operating room at 12:00 p.m., then it changed to 3:00 p.m., then to 6:00 p.m., and ultimately to 11:30 p.m. We went through the ceremonies that give honor to the donor and the family. We sat and watched as the donor flag was raised at the hospital, to signify a donor was giving life to others that night. Then 11:00 p.m. came. I had been at her side all day, except for the ceremony. I don’t think I have ever cried and prayed like I did that day, all while holding her hand. We were told she got a respiratory infection, so her lungs could not be donated. We were required to wear masks. I just could not. I needed to feel her hands on my face, my lips, when I kissed them.

Courtesy of Mitzi DeBusk

11:30 p.m. – that long walk to the OR for our final goodbye. I told Jeff I had to be the last one, I had to be the last one to say goodbye to her. Others went and said their goodbyes. Then it was my turn. I put the side rail down, lifted her, hugged her, kissed her, and told her I loved her and to fly to that bright North Star. God needed her. She was wheeled through the doors and we left. We drove three hours home in total silence. All I could do was watch that North Star and pray to her.

Thursday, November 22nd – Thanksgiving Day. No phone calls. No visitors. No turkey. No nothing. Just Jeff and I alone in our grief. However, on this heartbreaking Thanksgiving morning, both of Brittany’s beautiful hands were successfully transplanted on a wonderful woman, who not only had lost her hands, but both legs, to an overwhelming infection. So we did have something to be thankful for, even in our time of grief.

Courtesy of Mitzi DeBusk

The days that came were cold, dark, and lonely, even though Jeff and I were together. We had to plan a funeral for our daughter. Did you know they have package deals for funerals? Neither did we. It took all day, but we got through it. I was able to design her headstone. She so loved dolphins. And a dear friend sent me a Robert Frost poem, during those long days at the hospital. I realized it told Britt’s short life to a tee. I had it inscribed on the stone.

I had requested a complete autopsy, because of the medical person in me. I was angry. I wanted a reason why my daughter just died for no purpose. That took time. Then we had to arrange for her transportation from North Carolina to Virginia, which would be her final resting place. This took a week. When we finally reunited with Brittany, it was the following Thursday, at her viewing. She did not look like our Brittany, but we knew it was her. I put her new sparkly tennis shoes, that she had wanted for Christmas, on her. I kept the other pair wrapped for her under my Christmas tree, where it is still to this day. There was an endless line of people who came to the funeral home. We were blessed with so many friends, relatives, and people who loved Britt.

The following day was the funeral. Due to the weather, we decided to have her ceremony in the chapel instead of at the grave site. I sat up the entire night before, writing her service. I made sure there was homage paid to Jeff, the loving man who raised her from infancy, and songs from us both to her, to show her how much we loved her and will miss her. At the end of the service, the minister read a moving letter from Scott to Brittany. The weather reflected our inexplicable feelings with a steady, hard, cold rain that did not let up. For as sad and devastating as the circumstances were, the send-off for our daughter was appropriate and beautiful.

The autopsy report came about a month later. Unfortunately, Jeff got the mail that day and read the report. It was graphic, descriptive, and something he should never have read. Even I was having difficulty getting through it, though I was familiar with the presentation. She died of a congenital cardiac arrythmia. Really? Congenital? It also noted the medics worked on her for 93 minutes in her home, to get a cardiac rhythm back. I did not know whether to be mad for the hell we went through for four days, or to be ever thankful to them for giving us four more days with her. And there were no drugs in her system. No diet pill or any such similar ingredients. I needed to know this information was included in the toxicology results.

Brittany was just 23 years old. Completely healthy. Active. A loving mother. A stay-at-home mom. A wonderful cook, as her dream was to be a pastry chef. She had two cesarean sections in the last 16 months. She was in the ER twice within two months before her death. Why was this not seen during any of those medical appointments? Why did this happen? I cannot get past the anger nor the grief. My nights are long, endless, and filled with tears. Why was this not picked up in all the medical care she had received in the past 2½ years?

Britt’s liver and both kidneys were successfully transplanted. Her heart valves were recovered and in storage for someone, likely a child, who may need them. And we are grateful that today, January 26, 2020, we can report Britt’s hands are functioning – they are feeling and touching and holding that wonderful lady’s own grandchildren. Prayers answered!

I could sit here and permit this life-altering event to overwhelm me and allow my anger to totally take over. But it keeps coming back to me that no one, NO ONE, should feel this sorrow. If I can prevent one person, one family, from being subjected to this pain, then it may all eventually make sense to me. I want to educate and empower people. I want everyone to ask questions, mandate EKGs or echocardiograms for athletic screenings, and listen to the symptoms when a young person seeks medical attention. Do not assume there is no concern for a cardiac reason or diagnosis due to age, gender, or physical appearance.

I am a nurse. I should have done more for my daughter. I should have forced her to get a cardiac workup. I knew what that autopsy report was going to say. It only gave the confirmation I expected.

Back when I was battling cancer, I depended on the sunsets, as I knew the sun would rise. I also depended on this with Britt. She was declared dead at sunset on November 20th.

Courtesy of Mitzi DeBusk
Courtesy of Mitzi DeBusk

Jeff and I spend considerable time with our three toddler grandsons. Scott signed over parental rights to Melissa, Brittany’s biological mother, who lives in North Carolina. We see the children anytime we ask and there is a wonderful rapport between the sets of grandparents. Scott lives 15 minutes from them and three hours from us. We felt it was in the best interest for the boys to be near their father. We constantly drive up and down the highway to pick-up/drop off the boys. The shared arrangement is difficult, especially given the three-hour commute, but we are all making it work. Those young children cannot be loved more than they are. It’s funny, because even though they all highly resemble each other, Landon, the baby, looks exactly like Brittany. Through these three boys, our daughter lives on.

Courtesy of Mitzi DeBusk
Courtesy of Mitzi DeBusk

I have now become an Ambassador for Heartfelt, a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving lives from sudden cardiac arrest. I feel as though Brittany’s life could have been saved, and I share her story in order to educate and encourage cardiac screenings for all age groups.”

Courtesy of Mitzi DeBusk

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Mitzi DeBusk. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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