SALT LAKE CITY — First it happened to her father. Now it was her turn.

“I think I’m having a heart attack,” Lisa Stocking told her mother and sister one week before Christmas in 2010. Her chest felt tight with a heavy, unrelenting pressure and she could barely breathe.

Is this what it felt like to die?

“It was the worst pain I’d ever felt,” says Stocking, 49, “but I don’t remember a whole lot after that. All I know is, it was the day that changed my life.”

Thirteen months later, Stocking walks briskly into Salt Lake City’s Market Street Grill, slender and confident with a purposeful stride. She doesn’t look like a woman who shouldn’t be here, but she knows the odds weren’t in her favor on the night her sister, Karen, rushed her to Riverton Hospital.

Stocking collapsed in the emergency room and went into full cardiac arrest shortly after she was led through the hospital door. It was a scene similar to the one her father, Richard, had experienced 23 years earlier when he suffered a heart attack and died at age 52.

“He was a fun man to be around, always ready with a good sense of humor, always hardworking,” recalls Stocking, who was 24 then. “I miss him a lot. My biggest fear is having my family go through that same feeling of loss with me.”

With the realization that she’s fortunate to see another year, Stocking, who was wearing a red shirt covered with rhinestone hearts, wanted to sit down over a heart-healthy Free Lunch of salmon and salad during National Heart Month in the hope of inspiring the rest of us to make a few lifestyle changes and extend our lives. She urges everyone not to put off having a conversation with a doctor about whether they’re at risk for heart disease.

It’s a simple task that might have kept Stocking from waking up in the intensive care unit.

“For years, I was overweight, eating fast food all the time and not thinking much about it,” she says. “I’d been going in for regular checkups, but my doctors never told me that I was a ticking time bomb. I was later told that my cholesterol wasn’t high enough to set off an alarm, even with my family history. If I’d insisted on asking more questions, maybe I wouldn’t have had to spend that Christmas recovering from a heart attack.”

Stocking, who is single and lives with her mother and sister, was determined to get healthy once her heart had healed. Now 70 pounds lighter, she bypasses drive-up windows for cheeseburgers and fries, instead taking a sack lunch to her human resources job at the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City.

Instead of sitting down with the remote control every evening after work, she laces up her walking shoes and heads out to exercise, grateful to see another sunset, no matter the weather.

“The physical healing isn’t what’s been hard for me — it’s the emotional healing,” she says. “It’s feeling that I’ve disappointed people and that my doctors let me down. For a long time, I wondered, ‘Why wasn’t I told to lose weight? Why didn’t anyone tell me I was a heart attack waiting to happen?’ But now I know it’s up to me to be proactive. The responsibility is mine.”

She often wishes that her father could have made those same changes and extended his sunny personality and bad jokes into his 70s and beyond.

“To leave this world at 52 is too young,” she says. “He had a lot more giving to do. Now that I’m about to turn 50, I’m so grateful to be here. Every day, I’m reminded what’s important in life.”

Have a story? You do the talking, I'll buy the lunch. Email your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com.