Cynthia EssexCynthia Essex knew something wasn’t right that Sunday morning before church.

Getting out of bed was a struggle. Exhaustion persisted as she showered and got dressed. To top it off, Cynthia, who loves her assortment of shoes, didn’t care which pair she put on.

Cynthia pressed on, figuring she was just worn out. After all, she’s a wife and working mother of eight children ranging in age from 11 to 27.

“Something would be wrong with me if I wasn’t tired,” she joked.

During the service, she began feeling worse. She gave her son her offering envelope, excused herself and made her way toward the door. As she passed an usher friend and reached the front steps of the sanctuary, Cynthia started to collapse.

The usher caught her and other friends and family quickly gathered around. Her husband, Levi, wondered if Cynthia was just hungry, but he had panic in his voice. A nurse friend said Cynthia felt cold and clammy.

Cynthia had trouble speaking, but many thoughts raced through her head. She worried about her kids seeing her ill. Keeping with her sense of humor, she worried that her dress was out of place and “who would see what.”

And, she had this realization:

“I remember thinking: I can’t die. I have too much to do. I have purpose in my life.”

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Cynthia was taken to a hospital, where doctors weren’t sure what had happened. She had no obvious conditions such as high blood pressure and was a seemingly healthy woman in her 40s with no notable family history of heart trouble.

Medical workers asked lots of questions and ran tests. Already, her sense of humor was showing again. When asked the routine question of whether she used illegal drugs, Cynthia said that’s not how she spends her money.

“I like shoes,” she quipped.

Cynthia and LeviShe was in the hospital four days before leaving with a wearable defibrillator, which monitors the heart and checks for abnormal rhythms.

Physicians attributed her episode to an enlarged heart, which actually had shown up in medical tests a few days earlier when she sought treatment for shortness of breath and tiredness. The enlarged heart prevents the proper closure of her heart valves. Cynthia only later told her children of the seriousness of her situation, explaining that it is a form of congestive heart failure.

That frightening Sunday morning of June 9, 2013, caused Cynthia to make some lifestyle changes.

She no longer wears the defibrillator and is back at work as an administrator at Saginaw Valley State University, but she takes blood pressure medicine and watches her weight and salt intake, to be safe. Some days she needs rest. When planning a trip to an amusement park about three months after her hospitalization, her doctor warned her not to ride a roller coaster. It was “a temporary low point,” she said.

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Most of the time, though, Cynthia is upbeat. She’s even found time to become a volunteer with the American Heart Association.

Cynthia speakingShe shares her story in motivational speeches and tells others that “heart disease doesn’t look like anything,” that it can affect even those who seem perfectly healthy.

“It really shook me, and I would tell you it’s probably the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” Cynthia said. “Life is too precious to do nothing, so I’ve told my story everywhere I’m invited. … My message is hope.”

In February, she was one of the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women spokespeople in the Saginaw, Michigan, area. She also spoke at her community’s Heart Walk in May.

Heart disease is the leading killer of women in the United States, and Cynthia urges women to join her in listening to their bodies and eating healthy.

“I appreciate life. I appreciate people. I appreciate the chance to get a redo,” she said. “What you do for people comes back to you.”

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 Photos courtesy of Cynthia Essex

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Do you know a “Story from the Heart” we should tell?

Send an email to stories@heart.org that’s as brief or as detailed as you’d like.

Previous “Stories from the Heart” include:

4 heart attacks, 5-way bypass, 35 stents – and that’s only part of this survivor’s story

Amazing series of events helped Gene beat the odds … again

Since heart attack, she ‘learned to cook instead of smoke,’ runs half-marathons