Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By Elisha Fieldstadt

Moments after a Michigan man made the heart-wrenching decision to take his wife off life support, she started breathing on her own.

Michele De Leeuw, 57, was rendered nearly brain dead by a heart attack she suffered in August while at home with her husband. Days later, one of her doctors told her husband, Karl De Leeuw that, "the woman that you know as your wife is not there anymore," he said.

Less than four months later, she's made an almost full recovery.

Michele De Leeuw was without oxygen for 15 minutes before Sterling Heights paramedics were able to resuscitate her, Karl De Leeuw said.

She was then rushed to St. John Macomb Hospital, at which point Karl alerted his two adult children.

"When my father called me after she was rushed to the hospital, was that he felt that she was dead. It was the most earth-shattering phone call of my young life," said Michele's daughter, Myles De Leeuw, 24. "It was horrible to see my mother on more IVs and tubes than you can ever imagine."

"I’ve never seen that many IVs," Karl Leeuw, 58, echoed.

Six days after Michele's heart attack, her distraught family was told she had only 5 percent brain function and 25 percent heart function.

Michele De Leeuw with her daughter, Myles; her son, Jake and her husband, Karl.Courtesy of Myles De Leeuw

At that point, Karl De Leeuw was charged with making what he called the "hardest decision of my life."

"I took her off the ventilator. I unplugged her," he told NBC News.

"When we pulled the plug, it was just so sad to start living with the reality that my mom is dead," said Myles De Leeuw.

But that wasn't the reality.

"She started breathing on her own," Karl De Leeuw said.

Michele De Leeuw hadn't gained consciousness though, and doctors didn't expect her to recover so she was placed in "comfort care" for patients who are expected to pass away.

"Two days later, the doctor called me on the phone and said, 'We’ve had an unexpected event happen,'" Karl De Leeuw said. His wife's eyes had opened.

Two days after that, she was talking.

"She told the nurse she’s hungry," Karl De Leeuw said. "I said, 'well feed her.'"

"Two days later she was sitting up in bed feeding herself," Karl De Leeuw said

Still, Michele De Leeuw had a long way to go. She didn't know where she was, wasn't making sense and still had blockages in her veins.

Michele De Leeuw recovers in the hospital, with her friend by her side.Courtesy of Myles De Leeuw

Today though, after open heart surgery, speech and physical therapy, she's nearly fully recovered.

On Tuesday, she was awarded the Sterling Heights Fire Department’s “Survival Coin” at an event that brings heart attack survivors together with the first responders who treated them.

"You wouldn’t believe it if you didn’t know what she’s gone through." Karl De Leeuw said. "She’s a miracle lady."

He said his wife came home from her heart surgery on their 26th anniversary and it got him thinking about marriage vows.

Karl said through the years, the couple's bond has survived "for richer or for poorer." And over the past four months, they've overcome "in sickness and in health."

"For me though, I don’t think there are a lot of couples who can pass the last one," Karl De Leeuw said. "Till death do us part."