One of the great ironies in world history took place in an emergency room in Tennessee in the early 1990s when a doctor informed a family that their mother had a faulty heart.

A bad heart?

The woman who dreamed of becoming a nun but settled on a nursing career, a vocation she held with such pride and reverence that even in her dying days she told every hospital employee she encountered that she was once a nurse.

The woman who gave up nursing in a hospital to work in public health because she saw vulnerable kids and single mothers who needed someone to advocate for them and shower them with love and compassion.

The woman who found enjoyment in retirement teaching adults to read.

The woman who volunteered to lead a prayer chain at church and spent hours on the phone, calling parishioners to inform them of individuals who needed their prayers.

The woman who lost a kidney, suffered from debilitating heart disease, endured painful arthritis and weighed maybe 100 pounds yet still refused — adamantly refused — any help after her husband suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed and unable to communicate more than a few words for the final 16 years of his life.

That woman had a bad heart?

Clinically, yes, but she also displayed more physical and mental toughness in the face of adversity than anything I have witnessed in three decades of writing about athletes.

Allow me to deviate from sports commentary to shine a light on a quiet, unassuming, real-life hero who took her final breath last week. My mom, Judy, who died Wednesday at age 81 after putting forth one hell of a fight.

If she had been a boxer, opponents would have laughed and sneered at her size. She was tiny and shrank with age. But her devotion was limitless, her perseverance superhuman.

She put three kids through college and provided care for her own dying mother before setting sail on the glory years of retirement with my dad in the promise of travel and time with grandchildren.

Then came a stroke in 2000 that claimed my dad's speech and caused paralysis on one side of his body. A genetic eye disorder had left my father, Ken, legally blind in his early 40s and completely blind by his final years.

His wife with the faulty heart and arthritic hands dug deep.

To fully understand the picture, try this exercise:

Close your eyes to simulate blindness. Now imagine being unable to communicate beyond a few words. And one side of your body is paralyzed.

You need assistance getting out of bed into a wheelchair and then back into bed at night. Need help brushing teeth, eating, taking medicine, using a bed pan, getting dressed. Your existence is totally dependent on someone else.

My father lived that life for 16 years, all but the final few months of that time in an apartment with my mom.

She refused professional help. Any conversation about a nursing home was a non-starter. When pushed to consider in-home care, she waved off that idea, too. She figured her love and faith in God were all she needed.

Heart problems? Keep fighting for our father. A kidney removed? Get out of the hospital as soon as possible to keep fighting for our father.

When getting him into the car became too difficult, she sold her car and bought a minivan with a wheelchair ramp. Not a mechanical lift. A ramp, so she could push him up.

Her singular focus was to provide the best quality of life possible. That included daily trips to a coffee shop for a cinnamon roll, even if the process of getting there was exhausting.

Every summer when visiting them, I would handle all the transferring from bed to wheelchair to La-Z-Boy to van, to give Mom a break. My body felt like I had run a marathon on the flight home. It was hard work. A woman half my size handled that responsibility day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.

She outlived my father by four years, but the faulty heart and cruel nature of dementia gave her no respite. Her indomitable spirit never extinguished, though. She ended our last phone conversation by reassuring me.

"I'm fine. Don't worry about me," she said.

She died the next day, a fighter to the end.