Marlene Duckworth Rausch chalked up to asthma her getting winded from such everyday activities as keeping up with her then-11-year-old son at the store.
Then a 2004 visit to her doctor led to an immediate referral to a cardiologist, who delivered a bombshell - a form of heart disease where the muscle is abnormally enlarged and stretched. Her options? Well, she had one, her doctor said:
"You just die."
A second opinion, a pacemaker and defibrillator, and years of intense therapy later, Rausch is using her love of quilting to help other women avoid a similar close call while paying tribute to her mother, who died of heart disease four years ago.
"Lady In Red," a quilt designed and sewn by the 57-year-old Chandler resident, hangs in the lobby of the Arizona Heart Institute's main office in Phoenix. Its purpose is to honor her mother, Dora, while raising awareness of the symptoms, prevention and treatment of heart disease, the No. 1 killer of women in the U.S.
"I put on the message that it's my heartfelt wish that no one dies from heart disease because they do not know the symptoms," Rausch said. "My mother didn't. She kept insisting it's not her heart. She had all the classic symptoms, and was a smoker. The doctors didn't tell her because they didn't check."
Rausch credits Dr. Robert Strumpf of the Heart Institute, the physician who gave that second opinion, with saving her life. He was, however, blunt in his treatment regimen: She could not go back to work.
"It's a huge personal burden for the families, as well as a financial burden because of lost work," Strumpf said "The problem is enormous. ...
"There's a variety of limitations, including complete disability that puts a burden on the families to care for them. Sometimes, it disables 1½ people."
Dora Duckworth, who lived in a suburb of San Antonio, Texas, suffered a heart attack. "She was on life support when I walked into the room. I did not get to say goodbye to her," Rausch said. "That was really hard for me."
Rausch said she felt her mother's presence in her home design studio, where she completed the quilt - a modern design with bold red, purple and black colors - in February.
"I don't like to do an old-fashioned granny quilt," Rausch said. "They don't talk to me. I don't like to do boring quilts. I like to do ones that pop, that make people go ‘Wow.' Contemporary, jazzy, it knocks your socks off. I wanted colors, fabric and prints that really grab you."
She added: "It was going to be on display, where everyone can see it. You want to be perfect. I really think it's one of my best pieces of work."
Rausch plans to make smaller quilts for some of the exam rooms at the Institute.
Meanwhile, her treatment continues.
Rausch must exercise, while using extreme caution not to overexert herself. She must keep up on her medicines while watching her fluid and salt intake.
"She has made significant wins in the battle she fights every day," Strumpf said. "It's a battle for breath, for air, mobility and independence.
"It's a serious problem, but there has been tremendous progress made in treatment."