Steve Ullmer says there were no "warning signs" before his wife, Wendy Ullmer, suddenly died in her sleep last year
Steve Ullmer remembers the night of March 17, 2017, like it was yesterday. What started as a fun-filled day with family ended in tragedy when his wife, Wendy Ullmer, suddenly died in her sleep.
“There were no warning signs or anything out of the ordinary. It was a normal, fun night at my mom’s,” Steve, 38, tells PEOPLE, adding that he and his family returned to their Sherwood, Wisconsin, home and went to bed. “I don’t know why, but I just happened to wake up and I looked over at [Wendy] and she looked peaceful.
“Then I heard her breathe, and it didn’t sound good. It was more like a gasp, so I tried to wake her up. She would not wake up and there was no response, I was shaking her and screaming. I got really scared, it was just terror. She was just lifeless, no response at all. I was with her for her last breath.”
Wendy was rushed to St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton where her heart stopped and restarted several times as doctors worked to save her. At 9:51 a.m. the next day, Wendy’s heart stopped for the last time, and Steve told doctors it was time to let her go.
“They had her hooked up to all kinds of machines and I had to tell them to stop. That was the hardest moment for me,” Steve tells PEOPLE. “I remember that moment so vividly. It’s burned in my mind, a room full of doctors and nurses trying to revive her. And I had to say stop. It was so hard.”
Steve returned home, where he delivered the tragic news to their four sons — ages 12, 11, 9 and 4. In the months following the death, the grieving family slept in the same room, though Steve says he wasn’t able to sleep much.
As he mourned the loss of his wife, Steve says he was overwhelmed with confusion as he wondered how a “healthy” 36-year-old woman could die so suddenly.
“A darkness came over me, the finality of death. What happened? Why did her heart suddenly stop? Did I do something wrong?” he says. “I felt like a zombie, just going through life. It didn’t feel real. I was stuck in this nightmarish reality that she’s gone. It’s hard to write an obituary for someone you were just with.”
Steve, who first shared his story with Love What Matters, says Wendy had experienced an irregular heartbeat in the past, but doctors told her there was nothing to worry about. She hadn’t had any palpitations in five years, he says, and recalls Wendy complaining the day before her death that they had returned.
A cloud of questions hung over Steve’s head for the next five months until a coroner called him and told him what caused his wife’s death: cardiac sarcoidosis. The illness is an inflammatory disease in which clusters of blood cells form in the tissue of the heart, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“It didn’t change anything. No matter what it was, I’m thankful for the years I had with her,” he says. “I had to really rely on my faith in God through this. I got some peace that this was her time.”
As the family struggled to cope over the months, Steve received a text message from a stranger, Erin Stoffel. Stoffel, a mom of three, sent her condolences, and let Steve know that she understood what he was going through. Stoffel’s husband and one of her daughters were killed in 2015 when a drunk, suicidal gunman opened fire on a local bridge, the Chicago Tribune reported.
“Erin had it on her heart to reach out and encourage me. That’s all her message was,” he says. “I’m overwhelmingly thankful that I met someone that can relate to me, who has experienced loss like I have. We both came from good marriages … there’s so much commonality between us.”
Stoffel and Steve began dating last September, became engaged in April and wed on June 28.
“To be able to have the chance to love like that, we both feel very blessed,” he tells PEOPLE. “It’s bittersweet, but we believe we’ll see our spouses again. This isn’t the end. We have each other through this life.”
Now, the couple lives in Sherwood with their six children. And although he’s found happiness, Steve says there will always be a special place in his heart for Wendy.
“It’s hard some days. I miss being able to talk to her and seek her advice on things,” he says. “She was a very caring, loving person, very much a caretaker. I missing having her presence in the house. We’re still in the same house, and there are reminders of her.”