In grief, Durham family finds way to honor late father through heart health awareness
Posted February 5
Updated February 6
Feb. 6, 2014 was shaping up to be a typical weekday for the Underdue family. A busy day of work and school and activities. Instead, the unthinkable happened.
Antonio Underdue Sr., husband and father of two young children, died suddenly and unexpectedly in the family's Durham home. Underdue, an engineer who had worked for NASA during his career, collapsed in his son's room. There had been no warning.
"Everything was fine the night before," Koren Underdue tells me. "He woke up. He dropped my niece at school. He came back. And he had a heart attack in my son's room."
Antonio Underdue knew that his family had a history of heart disease. So he exercised, ate right and saw his doctor. "He thought he was doing everything right to fight the disease," Koren said. "And then we lose him."
To try to understand, Koren started doing researching about heart disease. She learned, for instance, that her husband should have insisted on not just an EKG, but an echocardiogram, which is a more advanced procedure.
She also leaned on her deep faith in God. And through her research and faith, Koren, along with help from her two children, Antonio Jr. and Kayla, established Christ Saves Hearts Foundation, which seeks to build awareness about heart disease - especially among young African American men and student athletes. This year, the group will be pushing for better ways to screen student athletes for heart problems, among other projects.
"For some reason, God chose us," said Underdue, who was recently named Spectacular Magazine 2017 Woman of the Year in the Arts and Culture category. "It's bigger than us. ... If we can save another life, how amazing is that?"
I checked in with Koren, who also is CEO of KU Real Estate Group with Keller Williams Realty, to learn more about her experience and Christ Saves Hearts. Here's our Q&A.
Go Ask Mom: Tell us about that morning three years ago.
Koren Underdue: I remember that day like it was yesterday and I will never forget it. It was Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, 8:05 a.m., to be exact. I woke up not realizing that my life would be changed forever and I was facing my biggest nightmare.
I found my 35-year-old husband unconscious and non-responsive lying on the floor next to my two young children, who at the time were four and six years of age. As I immediately called 911, I attempted CPR until the Durham response team arrived. My home was filled with Durham police officers, EMS and Durham firemen.
I remember as they were trying to resuscitate him, all I could do is circle myself around those men and pray like I've never prayed before. It was obvious that there was nothing anyone could do - it was his time to go.
That, by far, was the most difficult and painful time of my life. For a while, I couldn't accept the reality that I had just lost my best friend, my husband and the father of my kids due to a sudden heart attack. The imagery of that day will always be tattooed to not only my memory, but to my heart.
GAM: You grieved, but you also found a way to work through your grief by launching Christ Saves Hearts Foundation. How has the group grown and what are its goals?
KU: Christ Saves Hearts originally started as a movement that my kids and I started to help create healing and understanding to what just transpired in our lives.
We began to join in with other advocacy programs and organizations such as American Heart Association through volunteerism and advocacy support. We would research and document our findings thanks to the Internet, personal interviews of others affected and our own personal experiences.
We discovered through the biopsy report that my late husband died due to an enlarged heart, which is very common in young African American males and student athletes. Having this knowledge, we knew that it was imperative that we talk about our story and share our findings to hopefully save someone else's life. We decided to turn our movement into a nonprofit in 2015 when we realized we can possibly make a difference by inspiring hope and empowering change.
In 2016, we began to operate as a full nonprofit with active board members who are top business leaders; Christian faith-based leaders; community leaders; and education and health administrators. They are clearly passionate about advocacy for heart health. Our mission is to promote and advocate for the awareness of heart disease through the love of God, education, resources and community outreach.
Some of our immediate goals are to increase the number of scholarships provided to minority students in the Triangle who have been impacted by heart disease and continue advocacy outreach through various local programs and events.
GAM: What projects have Christ Saves Hearts been involved in?
KU: Just in 2016, we were able to partner with organizations such as the American Heart Association of the Triangle and Duke Heart and participate in events like Empower to Serve and Wrap Her Heart in Red. Among our various community events, one of our proudest moments was Christ Saves Hearts First Annual Scholarship Gala hosted this past November where we were able to honor the life and legacy of my late husband, but, more importantly, give away college scholarships to three deserving and outstanding high school seniors from the Triangle and continue to spread awareness.
GAM: As part of the group, you're pushing for new requirements for physicals for student athletes in North Carolina. What needs to change and why?
KU: Our largest project to date is our Task Force Initiative. We will be working with industry leaders and government officials to help push the state of North Carolina to mandate that all student athletic programs in high schools and state colleges provide a full health screening for all student athletes and provide proper training for cardiac arrest prevention.
As we all probably know, heart disease is the No. 1 killer in America, however, it is also the leading cause of death in our student athletes. (Editor's note: Among NCAA athletes, 75 percent of sudden deaths during exercise, training or competition is caused by a heart condition).
It breaks my heart every time I hear of a young person passing due to some unknown heart disparity that caused a sudden cardiac arrest. Unfortunately, we don't talk about it enough. How can we help save the lives of our youth?
It starts with educating ourselves, our schools and our communities and putting proper measures and protocol in place. What if we actually required that all student athletes had to have a full physical examination and fill out a health questionnaire that would highlight any possible risks of cardiac arrest because of their own health history and their family's? What if all examinations were required by a licensed health physician that had proper training to detect information dealing with heart health and sudden cardiac arrest? What if we provide the schools with proper training to help prevent deaths from sudden cardiac arrest?
At the end of the day, we are talking about our youth. It's our job and responsibility to protect them the best way we know how. I take this platform very seriously.
GAM: How has this group and platform, along with your Christian faith, helped you and your children mourn your husband?
KU: Christ Saves Hearts Foundation has definitely played a major role with helping my children and I cope with my late husband's passing on many levels. It allowed us to refocus our energy on something that was positive and was for the greater good.
By trusting in our Lord and Savior with all of our hearts, we had no choice but to lean on our own understanding and acknowledge Him as he directed our paths (Proverbs 3:5-6).
We experienced some very dark days (more like months or even years) and only my Lord and Savior was able to see me through this journey. He literally guided me and brought through me this dark place and I was able to find comfort when grieving by learning to stay steadfast in His word and prayer.
I tell my kids all the time - for some reason God used our family as an example of His love and we still have some work to do in His kingdom. That's when we began to discover our divine purpose.
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