2024 Go Red for Women Class of Survivors: Mary Wiley

The following is Mary's story and not an endorsement or diagnosis. Stories have been edited down for time.

Mary Wiley got a second chance — at life and a new career. Thanks to CPR her life was saved. Teaching others CPR helped Mary heal, and she encourages everyone to learn this lifesaving skill, so they are ready to help others, too.

Shortly after Mary Wiley graduated from college, she knew a desk job wasn’t for her. She enlisted in the Army, served as a combat medic, and was awarded the opportunity to complete graduate school in a military program. When she graduated, she was commissioned as a second lieutenant and became an intelligence officer stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska. At 28, she was married, 10 weeks pregnant and in the best shape of her life. During a morning workout at the gym on the Army base, she got off a rowing machine, looked around and fell to the floor. Her heart entered a deadly rhythm.

“It just looked like I had dropped dead,” she said.

Two soldiers performed CPR for 13 minutes. Someone found an automated external defibrillator, or AED, but the batteries didn’t work. When a medical team arrived, they delivered multiple shocks to Mary’s heart before rushing her to the local hospital. Ultimately, she was airlifted to a trauma hospital in Anchorage, 360 miles away.

“I woke up about a week later and my parents were there and they had to tell me what happened,” she said.

While doctors weren’t sure what caused Mary’s sudden cardiac arrest, they told her she needed an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD. It’s a device placed in the chest to monitor the heart’s rhythm. If it detects a problem, it can shock the heart back into a normal rhythm. After the surgery in June 2016, Mary was released to go live her life. She went back to work and continued exercising, running 5Ks and doing CrossFit. She was told her unborn baby was fine and not to worry because she had an ICD.

A year later when the Army found out Mary had an ICD, they medically retired her. A geneticist discovered it during a visit with Mary about her son, who has an unrelated genetic condition, and he asked her about her medical history.

Mary began to lose her sense of identity when she could no longer serve.

“That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to go all the way. That was me. Mary was in the Army,” she said.

Mary, now 36, had a second child, a daughter, and felt fortunate to be a stay-at-home mom. Still, she struggled with feelings of failure.

During the pandemic, Mary began training for a half-marathon. Sometimes she would pass out, or at least that’s what she thought. It turns out, Mary’s ICD was firing when her heart went into an abnormal rhythm. She received an upgraded ICD and was told to stop running and doing other strenuous exercise. Mary again felt a loss.

Eventually, she took a job with the county where she now lives in Maryland. As part of her job, she was certified as a CPR trainer by the American Heart Association. One day while teaching a CPR class, she shared her story for the first time, and it felt like finally how she felt inside matched with what was happening around her. It had been six years since her cardiac arrest. Teaching others CPR helped her come to terms with her “incredible” life event because as she was practicing and teaching CPR, it was like “accepting your reality and celebrating it.”

“For a large part of my journey, I acted like nothing had happened,” she said. “As I moved into the next chapter in my life, I've embraced what has happened, and that's where I found the ability to truly heal from it.”

While Mary has since moved to a new job and is not currently a CPR instructor, she still encourages everyone to learn the skill — and have the confidence to do it — because about 70% of cardiac arrests that do not happen in hospitals happen at home. There’s a good chance when someone performs CPR, it will be on someone they know.

“Don't think so much, just act because it works, and it saves lives. It dramatically changes somebody's outcome with just something so simple as even compressions only,” Mary said.

“Someone has literally given me a gift. They said, ‘Hey, you get another go. Your go is going to be different, but you get another go.’”

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