Mary Brockhoff was strolling behind her trolley through the confectionery aisle of a Coles supermarket on 30 August 2022. She and her 11-year-old daughter, Bethany, were looking for Father’s Day gifts for husband and dad Paul. Mary, then 51 years old, was feeling fine, and had no prior symptoms or warning, when she suddenly collapsed. She was suffering from a cardiac arrest. Mary shares with Melbourne Catholic her ‘miracle’ story of recovery and how grateful she is for the power of prayer, community and faith in God.

When Mary suffered an unexpected heart attack in the Burwood Coles supermarket, three 20-year-old workers quickly responded. They performed CPR on Mary and used a defibrillator five times in an attempt to shock her heart back into action—all while waiting for the paramedics to arrive. While this happened, another staff member had quickly whisked Bethany to the staff room, keeping her busy, chatting with her and feeding her hot chips.

Mary was later told that her heart had stopped beating for 17 minutes. It’s a miracle that she’s alive, let alone fit and healthy, today. Recalling that day, she says she was feeling well and had ‘no prior signs’ that anything was going to happen. There is no history of cardiac problems in her family, though four years earlier, she had discovered she had a ‘leaky valve’.

‘When we discovered the leaky valve, I simply needed to monitor it and have a check-up each year,’ says Mary, ‘But it was described as “only mild” and remained mild with each check-up, so I wasn’t concerned about that at all.’

Mary says she’s grateful the heart attack took place where it did, and when it did. ‘I was driving on a main road with a car full of kids before I went to the supermarket,’ she says. ‘And then, I happened to be in a place where people knew what to do, and they had a defibrillator—and they had the courage to use it! They were just incredible.’

Once paramedics arrived, they rushed Mary to nearby Box Hill Hospital, where she remained unconscious in an induced coma in the intensive care unit for five days. During this time, the family were unsure what the prognosis would be. Given Mary’s heart had stopped beating on its own for 17 minutes, there was a chance she’d either not come out of the coma alive or emerge with an acquired brain injury and/or with a permanent disability. There were just so many unknowns.

‘Paul was being told all sorts of scenarios,’ says Mary. ‘He was being prepared for all different types of outcomes on how I might pull out of the coma.’

20240206 Mary Brokhoff By F Basile P1299965
Mary Brockhoff, February 2024. (Photo by Fiona Basile.)

While Mary was in the coma, her family, the communities at her children’s schools and the school where she worked, and even people who didn’t know Mary dug deep, praying for a miracle—for a full recovery—and providing much-needed practical and emotional support each day.

‘The community of St James Primary School in Vermont, where two of my three children went to school at the time, were amazing,’ says Mary. ‘They created a roster, so we had people picking the kids up each morning to take them to school and then dropping them home. The kids were also being taken to their sports.

‘Donvale Christian College, where our eldest son attends school, also came through with a meal roster. The support we felt from all corners of our world was simply amazing.’

A friend organised a ‘meal train’, providing ongoing meals for the family to ensure they were well fed throughout this ordeal, and the school community where Mary is an art teacher—Harkaway Hills College in Narre Warren North—prayed the Rosary daily and held a vigil, which all staff attended. Many parents at the college also attended. People were sent messages, far and near, to pray for Mary’s recovery.

She says, ‘Following the cardiac arrest, the Catholic community we belong to were just incredible. There were so many people—my family, friends, school communities and people I didn’t know—praying for me. It was amazing.’

When she eventually returned to work in December of 2022, months after the heart attack, she recalls meeting people at friends’ parties who’d say, ‘Oh you’re Mary Brockhoff! We’ve been praying for you.’ Or while attending Mass at St Benedict’s in Burwood, members of the Missionaries of God’s Love would come up to her saying, ‘We’ve all been praying for you Mary.’

She says the ‘Catholic connections’ and the way everyone pulled together to pray for her was incredible because she’s ‘pulled through unscathed’. ‘I have really made a full recovery.’

Mary says this recovery is a miracle. Following the cardiac arrest in August, she suffered a mild stroke, and also had pneumonia. She was back in hospital in January last year and underwent open heart surgery to repair the leaky heart valve, which had previously been of no concern. A cardiac defibrillator pacemaker has now been implanted under her skin, near her heart, which monitors the heart rate and delivers an electrical shock to restore the heartbeat to normal should it stop.

‘It’s like a BYO defibrillator,’ says Mary. As well as this ‘backup’, Mary is now on heart medication and a regime of regular exercise and monitoring. ‘I probably need to be a bit more consistent with my exercise each week,’ she says, ‘to keep my heart strong. But other than that, I feel really well. I’ve made a full recovery.’

The power of prayer

Mary’s faith and prayer have always been important to her. However, she says this experience has shown her in a ‘new and tangible’ way the importance of community and the power of intercessory prayer.

‘I’ve personally been impacted by the power of people’s prayers of intercession,’ she says. ‘There were people in the wider Catholic community that didn’t know me who were praying for me. It was actually a really amazing time.’

In fact, ‘a lot of good came out of it’, Mary says. ‘We got to know a lot of other families in the community who we didn’t know, and people would come to visit me while I was recovering at home to have a cuppa. Receiving, and actually learning to receive, was a big thing.’

Mary says she felt lifted up by the prayer, and she credits all the prayer for not feeling traumatised by the heart attack. ‘I feel like the prayer really buffeted us from being scarred by what happened, or being traumatised by it,’ she says. ‘We really felt like God was close in carrying us through, and my husband Paul felt that too.’

She says that daughter Bethany, who witnessed Mary’s heart attack, had struggled in the aftermath, wanting to stay particularly close to her. She had also come to Mary with questions like: ‘Where was God when this happened? And why did God let this happen?’ But Mary says she was able to console Bethany by pointing out ‘all the good’ that had come from the experience.

‘I said to Bethany, “I came through it though, so we are grateful for all the prayers that were answered, and we can be grateful that I made a quick recovery. And look how God has loved us through others and how he’s provided for us when we were in need.

‘It’s amazing how every single need [was met]—the meals, the help in getting lifts for the kids to and from school and sports, the prayers—everything. God provided for our every need during that time.’

To this day, Mary has kept in touch with the workers at Coles. Whenever she’s in the area, she pops into the store to say hello. She has also become an advocate for CPR training and having defibrillators in the workplace. Each year, during the month of October, there is a campaign called ‘Shocktober’ organised by Ambulance Victoria to help raise awareness for defibrillators. Though not fully recovered at the time, Mary fronted many mainstream media cameras for the campaign, to help raise awareness of the importance of knowing CPR and having defibrillators in the workplace.

‘Again, I was just so fortunate, and I’ll always be grateful that I was in a place where they had trained staff who were courageous enough to conduct CPR on me and to use a defibrillator five times, in trying to get my heart started,’ says Mary. ‘God really provided for me on that day, and so for that, I’ll always be grateful. I’m also now particularly grateful for my health, my family and for all those people who prayed for me.’

Mary is now 53 years old and continues to work as an art teacher with the primary school students at Harkaway Hills College. She lives in Ringwood East with her husband Paul and their three children, Harry, 14, Bethany, 12, and Zane, 10.