"She died in the car by the time we got to the city limits of Nashville," said her daughter, Judy Brewer. "She drowned in her fluids."
Helen had polycystic kidney disease, a genetic disease that has affected at least 10 people in her family, including daughters Gennie Hammond, Peggy Tidwell and Patsy Harvey. Gennie had a kidney transplant in 2002; Peggy is on dialysis three days a week.
Medicine has advanced significantly since Helen died, and dialysis facilities are now available in the Shoals. But as Patsy's health worsened during the past several years, her husband, Doug, became determined to avoid putting her on a machine that brought her mother, and still brings her sister, such pain.
At 66, he gave her one of his kidneys.
"It was never a question," Doug said. "She tried to get me to back out, (asking) 'Are you sure?' I said 'Yep, I'm sure.' I said, 'I'd do anything in the world to keep you off that machine just one day, just one time not having to go.' "
Their daughter, Kelli Harvey, remembers watching Patsy care for Helen, and she found it hard to describe just how she felt about her father's donation.
"It's just a wonderful gift that God blessed us with, that Daddy was a match and was able to do this for her so she wouldn't have to go through that," she said.
Balloons and handmade signs decorated the entrance to the couple's Center Star home Wednesday, the day after Patsy, 63, returned from the May 23 surgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital. Doug had been home for several weeks, returning on a Friday.
"He was at Walmart the next day, at church on Sunday and would have been at work on Monday had it not been Memorial Day," Kelli said, laughing.
That Tuesday, though, he was back at Wise Alloys in Muscle Shoals - "I've missed two days of work because I was sick in 41 years," he said proudly.
His good health is what made the transplant possible, an operation the couple had assumed wasn't an option because of Doug's age.
"We always thought I'd be too old," he said. "We listened to somebody who didn't know ... they didn't have a medical degree, they just had opinions."
The two were matched in February after Patsy already had been on a donor list for three years. She's known since the 1980s she has the autosomal dominant form of PKD, but it took years to produce symptoms. She was more tired than sick, she said, while others have high blood pressure, kidney stones and chronic pain or heaviness in the back, sides or abdomen, according to the PKD Foundation.
With PKD, which affects an estimated 1 in 500 people, cysts develop in the kidneys, filling them with fluid and causing them to increase in both size and weight. The cysts result in reduced kidney function, leading to kidney failure.
"If you've got polycystic kidneys, you've got three options: You go on dialysis, you get a kidney, you die. And that's it," Doug said.
The disease doesn't skip a generation, and parents with ADPKD have a 50 percent chance of passing the disease to each of their children. Not everyone in Patsy's family has been tested for PKD, but many have.
Kelli has it, but Patsy's two other children, Heather Harvey and Tony Harvey, haven't been tested. Judy hasn't been tested, and neither has her and Patsy's brother, Randy Parker, although he has non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. But their brother, Russell Parker, does have PKD.
"The main thing is people don't realize until it hits their family how vital it is to be a donor," Judy said. "Because you give somebody else life.
"Our mother, we went through so much seeing her. You just know how important it is if people will put it on their license to give life to other people."
Gennie's transplant in 2002 came from an extended family member - Fay Deluna, the sister of Peggy's husband.
"What you have to do as a donor for the benefit of the recipient, that's nothing compared to what you save the recipient from having to go through," Doug said.
Kelli knows she eventually will face a dilemma similar to what family members have endured. She already has overcome Hodgkin's lymphoma and renal cell carcinoma, for which she had most of one of her kidneys removed. She hasn't been tested to see if her kidneys match Doug's, and although he says he would like to give her his remaining kidney and go on dialysis, she knows that likely isn't an option.
For now, she is preaching the importance of being an organ donor. Her battles with cancer have left her unable to donate blood, for example, which she always loved to do. But she can donate other things, such as her eyes. People forget what all they can do for others through donations, she said.
Just look at what her dad did for her mom.
"What a great gift for a father to give his children," Kelli said. "He's probably kept my mother around for a lot longer than maybe she would have been if she hadn't gotten the transplant. It's just a wonderful gift. I just can't really express the feeling."