Daughter of the legendary James Brown battles heart failure

By Stefani Kopenec, American Heart Association News

Congestive heart failure survivor Deanna Brown-Thomas with her father, the legendary Godfather of Soul James Brown. (Photo courtesy of Deanna Brown-Thomas)
Congestive heart failure survivor Deanna Brown-Thomas with her father, the legendary "Godfather of Soul" James Brown. (Photo courtesy of Deanna Brown-Thomas)

Deanna Brown-Thomas was at her desk at the James Brown Family Foundation in Augusta, Georgia, when her chest began tightening. She was sweating profusely. Feeling the urge to burp, she hustled to the bathroom and splashed water on her face.

She returned to her desk hoping she could push through. She couldn't.

The daughter of the legendary Godfather of Soul called Velice Cummings, her friend and sorority sister. Cummings urged Brown-Thomas to go to the emergency room.

"We must see what's going on with your heart," Cummings told her. "You're saying your chest is tight. We can't play with that."

Brown-Thomas gave in. At the hospital, she felt like she was going to pass out while waiting to be treated. Because of the combination of a rapid heart rate, low oxygen and a troublesome electrocardiogram, doctors rushed Brown-Thomas to the cardiac catheterization lab to take a look inside her heart.

The news was good. No arteries were blocked.

However, an ultrasound showed her heart's ability to pump blood to her body – known as ejection fraction – was extremely low. Normal range starts at 50%. Hers was 10%. She had congestive heart failure. Those three words struck fear in her.

"That's what my father died of," she said of James Brown, who passed away on Christmas Day in 2006. "I started to wonder, 'Am I going to die?'"

Brown-Thomas' husband and Cummings were the first to see her in the recovery room.

"You need to stay on the good foot," Cummings told Brown-Thomas, invoking the name of one of her dad's top hits, "Get on the Good Foot."

Before her cardiac event in October 2020, Brown-Thomas appeared healthy. Other than a cough and cold-like symptoms that February, she'd felt healthy, too.

Then again, she did have difficulty breathing while lying in bed; she just didn't connect that to her heart. Brown-Thomas thought she probably needed to slow down because as the daughter of a cultural icon and president of the family foundation, she stayed in high demand. She also had been under a lot of stress dealing with lawsuits over her father's estate, which weren't settled until 2021, nearly a year after the episode that sent her to the emergency room.

Brown-Thomas spent a couple of days in the hospital before leaving with a handful of prescriptions and wearing a defibrillator vest that monitored her heart and could shock it into a normal heart rhythm if needed.

After three months, her ejection fraction hadn't improved to greater than 35%, so she underwent a procedure to have an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD)/pacemaker placed in her chest. She was at high risk of dangerous irregular heartbeats because of her weak heart muscle. She needed the pacemaker because she had a slow heart rate.

Brown-Thomas kept what happened largely a secret. She only told a few close family members and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. sisters about her diagnosis and the depression that followed. She struggled with the bump the device made on her chest. She stopped wearing certain outfits and wrestled with her sex appeal. She was scared to get close to people, afraid somebody would hug her too tightly and notice.

One day, Brown-Thomas was sitting outside an Italian restaurant talking to friend and sorority sister, Selina Hamby-Davis, who also experienced heart failure and had been living with her own ICD since 2010. Brown-Thomas broke down and cried.

"Why me?" she said.

"Why not?" Hamby-Davis said. "Sometimes you've got to be the one to tell the story."

Deanna Brown-Thomas was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in October 2020. It was the same condition that caused her father's death. (Photo courtesy of Sanjeev Singhal/CSRA Photography)
Deanna Brown-Thomas was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in October 2020. It was the same condition that caused her father's death. (Photo courtesy of Sanjeev Singhal/CSRA Photography)

Hamby-Davis added that Brown-Thomas could tell others once she was ready. Now, she told her friend to slow down, take her medicines and be more careful with her diet.

Brown-Thomas did. She no longer eats red meat or chicken, opting instead for more fish and vegetables. She drinks ginger ale instead of wine when out with friends; she hasn't had alcohol for years. She went from a size 10 to a size 4; now 55, that's the same size she wore at 21. She started moderate exercise. Self-care became "top tier," she said.

The result? In December, she wore a bikini to the beach, feeling free to deliver her "testimony" to anyone who asked about her ICD.

"I'll tell them right up front, 'Oh, it's the hand of God.' They may look at me crazy, but that's exactly what it is," she said. "I'm thankful for the doctors, but it was His grace and mercy who gave me a second life."

Further evidence of her confidence was her willingness to share her story with American Heart Association News. This is her first time doing so. In addition to prompting by friends, she was inspired by a video of AHA volunteer Star Jones talking about heart disease as a survivor of open-heart surgery.

"I had something come over me," Brown-Thomas said. "It was almost like God saying, 'And now it's your turn, because you're going to save women with this, especially women of color.'"

Heart failure affects an estimated 6.7 million U.S. adults, disproportionately affecting Black people.

Brown-Thomas' heart function is now on the low end of normal because of her "excellent compliance with medications" along with a strong motivation to stay healthy, said Dr. Shuchita Gupta, her advanced heart failure cardiologist.

A calling to serve mankind and carry out her father's business pushes Brown-Thomas to keep going, said Cummings, a human relations executive who helps coordinate the foundation's annual turkey and toy giveaways with her best friend.

Said Cummings, again invoking a classic James Brown hit: "She lives by that motto of 'get on up.'"

Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

American Heart Association News Stories

American Heart Association News covers heart disease, stroke and related health issues. Not all views expressed in American Heart Association News stories reflect the official position of the American Heart Association. Statements, conclusions, accuracy and reliability of studies published in American Heart Association scientific journals or presented at American Heart Association scientific meetings are solely those of the study authors and do not necessarily reflect the American Heart Association’s official guidance, policies or positions.

Copyright is owned or held by the American Heart Association, Inc., and all rights are reserved. Permission is granted, at no cost and without need for further request, for individuals, media outlets, and non-commercial education and awareness efforts to link to, quote, excerpt from or reprint these stories in any medium as long as no text is altered and proper attribution is made to American Heart Association News.

Other uses, including educational products or services sold for profit, must comply with the American Heart Association’s Copyright Permission Guidelines. See full terms of use. These stories may not be used to promote or endorse a commercial product or service.

HEALTH CARE DISCLAIMER: This site and its services do not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always talk to your health care provider for diagnosis and treatment, including your specific medical needs. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem or condition, please contact a qualified health care professional immediately. If you are in the United States and experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 or call for emergency medical help immediately.