Four years ago, Brenda Hill was working hard at a job she absolutely loved. She worked in the billing department at Metro Medical Services, an ambulance company in Loves Park, IL, a neighboring town to Rockford. It’s a company, she says, that felt like family.
That same year, 2016, Brenda began volunteering at the Red Cross, even getting certified in CPR. She was happy and healthy. At 57 years old, she went to the gym three days a week, mowed her grass often, but by August of 2016, she could hardly get through her lawn without feeling short of breath. That’s when she started having health issues.
She was originally misdiagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and underwent six months of chemo. By January of 2017, she was diagnosed with a rare heart condition called Cardiac Amyloidosis, a condition where your body makes too much protein, attaching to vital organs. It stiffens the heart so it can’t pump. Only One out of 5,000 people are diagnosed with it.
Brenda says, “I remember saying to my doctor, ‘Well at least I don’t have cancer.’ And she said, ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but you probably wish you had’.”
One month later, would be a day she’ll never forget. Brenda says she woke up with horrible stomach pain and began throwing up blood. Immediately, she called her team at Metro. They came lights and siren to take her in the ambulance to the hospital. She arrived at the ER, and woke up three days later, intubated. She went into cardiac arrest, twice, and couldn’t walk.
The Red Cross was there to help save her life, as she received six units of blood.
“If I didn’t have blood, I would’ve died,” Brenda says. “I have a strong faith, but if you look at the big picture, I would’ve died.”
Today, Brenda gets chemo every two weeks, to keep the protein levels in check. She says that most people with Cardiac Amyloidosis often don’t make it more than 10 years. Some don’t make it past a year.
“It’s hard living with a terminal disease,” Brenda says. “I look at things differently. I always tried to be a decent human being. Now, I try to give back. Everything means so much more, time spent with my grandchildren, my kids, my friends.
“It (an illness like this) messes with your head, and you have to be really strong to not let it get you down and to try to maintain as much normalcy as you can,” Brenda says. “I wake up each day and thank God each day that I’m awake.”
Talking to her, you can tell her faith plays a major role in her outlook on life. She says her pastors and counselors have helped her through it. Her children and grandchildren are who she lives for.
While she can no longer volunteer on site, she’s stayed busy during the coronavirus pandemic, sewing masks for people and assisting the Red Cross, from home, in any way she can. This also includes administrative work for the American Red Cross of Northwest Illinois.
“From the moment I met Brenda, I felt the warmth and sincerity of her spirit,” says Leslie Luther, Executive Director of American Red Cross of Northwest Illinois. “She is a grateful and proud recipient of the Red Cross blood products. It was for this reason she wanted to give back to the Red Cross. I couldn’t ask for a more compassionate person willing to help wherever needed.”
Once the coronavirus pandemic slows, Brenda plans to continue speaking to medical schools about Cardiac Amyloidosis, to help educate future doctors on the disease. This week, she’ll attend the Brenda Hill Red Cross Blood Drive, in Rockford, on June 30th, and hopes to encourage those who are healthy to donate blood. It saved her life, and it could save others, too.
“There’s always someone that’s worse off than I am, that’s going through 10 times what I am,” Brenda says. “So, I try to be humble and grateful for what I have.”
Written by Hannah Allton, Regional Communications Manager