people standing in a row
(center) Monica Lewis-Patrick, president, CEO and co-founder of We the People of Detroit, pictured with coalition members (from left) Debra Taylor, Phyllis Griffith and (to right) Aurora Harris and Cecily McClellan. (Photo provided by Monica Lewis-Patrick)

She is Detroit’s “Water Warrior,” but last week Monica Lewis-Patrick was fighting for something else: her life.

A day after flying to her hometown in Kingsport, Tenn., ahead of a conference, the president and CEO of We the People of Detroit collapsed Memorial Day morning on her mother’s front porch. 

“I realized she was out,” said Lewis-Patrick’s mother, Sinora Lewis, a 77-year-old former U.S. Army nurse. 

From left, Mena Lewis, with her mother, Sinora Lewis, and Monica Lewis-Patrick. (Photo provided by Monica Lewis-Patrick)

Lewis sprung into action with the help of a registered nurse who lives across the street and another woman visiting that day who was completing nursing school. The three spent 20 minutes performing CPR on Lewis-Patrick before a rescue squad arrived to take over, shock her back to life and transport her to the hospital. 

“Her heart had completely stopped. We didn’t stop working,” Lewis told BridgeDetroit. “The doctor has said they can’t believe she’s alive, because the condition she had is instant death.”

Lewis-Patrick, a powerful figure in Detroit and nationally for her human rights and water affordability work, awoke on a ventilator a couple days later in a Ballard Health facility. 

She’d undergone surgery for the placement of a defibrillator and pacemaker and was diagnosed with Long QT Syndrome, a genetic condition that causes an irregular heart rhythm. 

“I am a person of deep faith and so I trust God. I believe everything happens in divine order. I don’t believe there are any accidents,” said Lewis-Patrick, 56. 

She said she views the ordeal as “another way to lift and celebrate my mom as my hero.”

“(Others) would not have worked on me as long and stayed as committed to my survival,” she said. “She broke my ribs all over. They say ‘if you don’t break ribs, you don’t do it right.’ The pain lets me know I’m still alive.”

Prior to the incident, there were no warning signs. Lewis-Patrick didn’t take any medications and she was unaware of the genetic condition that her family has learned she’s had since birth. 

“Nobody knew it,” Lewis-Patrick’s mother said of her daughter’s condition, something she hadn’t previously heard of as a medical professional. “She’s been a walking time bomb.” 

Sinora Lewis (Photo provided by Monica Lewis-Patrick)

The condition was diagnosed through a cardiac catheterization conducted by a doctor at the hospital, which is ranked highly in the country, they said, for its specialists in cardiology. 

The family is now pursuing testing for Lewis-Patrick’s own two children as well as other siblings in the family and grandchildren. Lewis said there’s a 50% chance it’s a condition they also have.

“Hopefully nobody else in the family will have to endure this because they would be able to address it early,” Lewis-Patrick said. “That’s one of the bonuses.”

Lewis-Patrick, a Detroiter since 2009, said she’s taking her recovery at her mother’s Tennessee home slowly but is eager to return home to her city.

“When I would come to (at the hospital), I’d be asking (my children) ‘what day is it? I have a grant due. I have a speech due. I have a report to do,’ she said. “My whole life is about being able to vouch, support and help and do.”

Lewis-Patrick said her family has advocated for people and for human rights everywhere they’ve been. What drew her to Detroit, she said, is family ties dating back to the 1950s, including her uncle, famed former Detroit Tiger, Willie Horton.

“It’s not been just me,” Lewis-Patrick said of her service. “It’s been something that I’ve seen my mom do. It’s something she expected of us.”

Lewis-Patrick has served on multiple state, local and national boards and committees dedicated to water equity. In 2015, she was named to the World Water Justice Council and appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice.

As a former lead analyst for the Detroit City Council’s policy office, she authored legislation and conducted research to serve city residents. She earned a bachelor’s degree in social work and sociology from East Tennessee State University and a master’s in liberal studies degree with a concentration in criminal justice/sociology and public management. 

The advocate said she’s “laser focused” on achieving water affordability for residents of Detroit, the state of Michigan and the nation. The team at We the People of Detroit, she said, has been working to cultivate younger leaders and bring them in.

“I don’t want to be that person that the organization dies with me,” Lewis-Patrick said of the community building coalition that will celebrate 13 years in August. “I want to be that person who can intentionally hand that organization off to good hands beyond me.”

For Lewis, the act of saving her eldest daughter’s life was just part of what she was meant to do.

Lewis-Patrick’s mother said she knew at age 5 that she wanted to be a nurse and started that path as a nursing assistant at 18. She later went back to school to become a registered nurse and was deployed to Operation Desert Storm for the U.S. Army. 

“I just did it and stayed calm while doing it,” Lewis said of the rescue. “I’ve been to war.” 

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