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Mallorie von Tillow was 14 when she thought she heard her mother Jeanie cry out from her bedroom. Finding her slumped on the bed unconscious, the teenager yelled for her father to call 911 and started giving her mother CPR. Along with a few others that day, including emergency dispatcher, paramedics, doctors and hospital teams, she helped save her mother's life.

Jeanie von Tillow still puzzles over how her daughter knew she was in trouble.

The cardiac arrest came without warning. "There was no time for me to cry out."

Perhaps Mallorie, who still maintains she heard something, simply sensed her mother needed her.

Whatever communicated Jeanie von Tillow's distress that February day in 2001, the right person got the message. Only two weeks before, Mallorie had completed CPR training in her high school health class.

Mother and daughter, both of Santa Rosa, often tell their story as part of the American Heart Association's annual "Go Red for Women" campaign to remind women to be heart-healthy. As part of this year's local events, there will be a 5K "Run with Heart" race Feb. 23 at Riverfront Park in Healdsburg.

The von Tillows will not participate, as there is a new chapter in the family heart story. Mallorie's baby daughter, Alexandria Kahealani Cummings, had open-heart surgery in November due to the same life-threatening heart defect, tetralogy of fallot, as Alexandria's grandmother, Jeanie.

To back up, Jeanie von Tillow was born in 1961 with what some call a hole in her heart, a congenital heart defect that changes the flow of blood to the heart muscle.

"I was a blue baby," she said, referring to the skin's blue tinge when blood is low in oxygen.

"There were no tests for this. No one expected this. They didn't think I was going to live and actually baptized me in the hospital," said von Tillow, now 52.

As a little girl, she was "short of breath, pale. People hovered over me."

Finally, at age 7, she had corrective open-heart surgery and became a normal softball-playing kid.

All was well until age 39 and the cardiac arrest, which was caused by a leak in the pulmonary valve. Doctors told her the cardiac arrest was not related to her birth condition. In retrospect, Jeanie said she was "under a lot of stress, working too hard, not getting enough sleep," all heart stressors.

She had surgery again, this time to replace the valve. With an implanted pacemaker and defibrillator, she now does a lot of walking and runs a coffee business.

"It's been an interesting ride," she said. "I feel very blessed."

When Mallorie, a trained nurse and heart-savvy, was pregnant with Alexandria, she pushed for prenatal tests to check on her baby's heart. A fetal echocardiogram revealed a combination of problems, including the one with which her grandmother was born.

But unlike at her grandmother Jeanie's birth, doctors in 2013 were ready for Alexandria.

"Fourteen medical people were standing at the bed," said Mallorie, when she gave birth.

The good news was Alexandria "was born pink and seemed fine, at least on the outside," said her grandmother.

Surgery was delayed until she was 6 months old. But early detection and treatment were key, said Mallorie von Tillow.

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"To an untrained person, my daughter would have looked pretty healthy overall. You would have never known she had a life-threatening heart defect," she said. "I've heard too many stories of parents who could have helped save their child's life had they known."

And she's grateful that she knew how to perform CPR, or cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, and could help her mother. As a teenager practicing on mannequins, she said, "I remember thinking I will never use this. You just really never know."

Only 1 in 5 American women realize that heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in this country, according to the heart association.

Women and their doctors are still learning that women can have different symptoms and responses to medications than men. They are more apt to feel a sharp and burning chest pain and often pain in the neck, jaw, throat and back.

"I tell women, listen to your body," said Jeanie von Tillow. "If you're feeling tired, light-headed, if you have pains in your chest, call your doctor."

Mallorie also has her own heart story. At 10 months, her pediatrician noted "something funny, like a heart murmur."

Doctors discovered PDA, or patent ductus arteriosus, a common congenital heart defect that is easily fixed by repairing a duct.

"My situation was really nothing, compared to Alexandria's," Mallorie said.

The baby has a ways to go before her family can relax. But her grandmother expects one day they'll be comparing heart notes.

"She'll be fine," Jeanie said. "She comes from a long line of very strong women."

<i>Susan Swartz is a freelance writer and author based in Sonoma County. Contact her at susan@juicytomatoes.com.</i>

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