As Lillian Mack Shakur faced the biggest demon in her life, she lost more than 60 pounds, shrunk from a size 14 to a size 8 and spent the better part of eight months on a sofa in her living room. The 61-year-old Kansas City resident, usually a vibrant and nurturing individual who at one time had operated a shelter for homeless women and children, couldn’t dress herself, walk to the kitchen for a glass of water or play with her beloved grandchildren.
Lillian’s nemesis was heart disease, which had plagued her since 2003 when she underwent bypass surgery following a heart attack. Though she didn’t have a family history of heart disease, Lillian was one of the thousands of women annually diagnosed with this so-called “silent killer. “
“I never felt right after surgery,” says the doting mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. “I kept going downhill.”
The symptoms Lillian experienced included profound fatigue, shortness of breath and a general malaise. Like many women, Lillian ignored the nagging signs. She moved with her husband, A. Shakur, in 2005 to Nacogdoches, Texas where he worked as a truck driver. Once she settled into her new home, Lillian’s physical condition continued to deteriorate and she suffered another heart attack. The day following a routine visit to a clinic for a blood draw, Lillian received an urgent phone call from her doctor.
“He told me to come in right away,” says Lillian. “My immediate thought was ‘This isn’t going to be good.’”
Indeed, the news Lillian received was sobering. A doctor walked into the exam room and told Lillian her kidneys were starting to fail and that there was nothing that could be done. Diagnosis: End-stage congestive heart failure. Devastated, Lillian decided to visit Kansas City to be comforted by her family. Following tearful goodbyes, she returned to Texas to be with her husband.
Lillian’s health spiraled downward, but she was careful not to let her husband and family know the severity of her condition. “Women are strong individuals,” says Lillian. “It’s important to take care of others in our lives and sometimes we leave ourselves last.”
When Lillian received a phone call that her shelter in Kansas City was experiencing operational problems, she dragged herself back to tend to business. She closed the shelter and was left with a huge home that proved to be overwhelming to maintain and navigate. Lillian bought a tiny house in January 2010 that was more manageable, and by that time she was so exhausted that all she could do was sit and sleep on the living room sofa.
When Lillian’s niece from Minneapolis visited Aunt Lillian in July 2010, she was shocked at the vision before her: An emaciated 60-year-old woman with sunken eyes and a blank stare. Lillian’s niece, sister and brother rushed her to Research Medical Center where she was admitted and diagnosed with COPD, a progressive pulmonary disease. Lillian was introduced to what she calls a team of angels—three doctors and a nurse practitioner that took charge of the critically ill woman. They told Lillian she had perhaps six months to live because of her advanced stage of COPD. But Lillian was promptly put on a new medication and diet regiment and in her words, was nurtured back to health by the professionals at Research Medical Center, including advance nurse practitioner Tess Laoruangroch, FNP-BC, heart failure coordinator in the Heart Failure Clinic.
“They were all amazing,” says Lillian.
Lillian’s siblings also gave their sister plenty of TLC during her recovery, taking her to doctor’s appointments and helping with other details.
Today Lillian Mack has regained quality of life. She plays with her eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, crochets winter scarves for patients at the Research Medical Center Heart Failure Clinic and collects clothes for a local Kansas City shelter. She enjoys cooking—especially her famous spaghetti—and hosts girly cupcake birthday parties for her granddaughters.
Lillian’s advice to women, regardless of their history of heart disease, age or physical condition is simple: be proactive, pray and never lose hope.
“I believe I’m a miracle,” says Lillian. “But I couldn’t have done it without the care and support of people like Tess and my doctors and my strong faith.”