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Army veteran went into cardiac arrest while pregnant—here’s what she wants you to know

Mary Wiley veteran
American Heart Association/YouTube

This is a story about Mary Wiley, a mother and veteran. She was in the best shape of her life, and at the height of her career as an army officer. She was also 10 weeks pregnant, a fact that only a few of the hundreds of other soldiers, mostly men, in her unit knew about. On a typical day, she was working out, until she wasn’t—she had passed out. At the age of 28, Wiley was in cardiac arrest.

Other soldiers jumped in to help her, and found an AED, but it was out of batteries. They continued CPR on Mary for 13 minutes, until emergency services arrived. She was in Fairbanks, Alaska, but had to be life-flighted to a larger hospital in Anchorage, where she awoke to her mom and dad waiting for her. She felt perfectly fine, and miraculously, her unborn son was also perfectly fine.

Despite doctors speculating through the years, there was no diagnosis or real cause. She needed an Automated Implanted Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD), which would monitor her for additional cardiac arrest events and administer shock from within to help her heart function again. It’s had to do its job four to five times in the years since her first event.

Her pregnancy progressed as planned, though it was high risk from then on, and said her delivery was a “controlled” event with lots of help ready nearby. She even went on to have another successful pregnancy, and became a stay-at-home mom to her kids, now 7 and 4, in North Carolina.

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These are the lessons she’s learned along her path, that she hopes other mamas pay attention to.

Your job is not your identity

When she had to medically retire from the Army, she was heartbroken. After all, she’d led teams of men who had never seen a woman in the role she was in, and could outrun and physically keep up with the best of them. “Being physically in shape was my thing — it allowed me some legitimacy,” she says. “Otherwise it would be like, ‘Oh yeah — SHE.’” So, changing paths from Ret. 1st Lieutenant to stay-at-home mom was tough, as she saw that as her identity.

Then she learned, “No, [the job] was not my identity, it was the leader that you are. And you can be that in the military or in other places.” In a not-so-coincidental moment, she was offered a supplementary job in her first post-stay-at-home mom role to teach CPR, though the hiring employer knew nothing of her past. She took it.

Things have come full circle. She now works in national security for the federal government.

Things aren’t always in your control

A week after the event, Wiley was back in the gym trying to work out again — until her doctor kicked her out. She didn’t want anyone to think she’d failed.

Wiley calls herself a Type-A person. “I did this, this, and this, so that’s not going to happen. Wellll, it does,” she jokes. She wants pregnant mamas, and all parents, to run through scenarios in their head but to be able to say, “I got this,” if something beyond their control might happen.

Instead, she gives herself daily reminders — “Did you do the best you could? Yes! You did. The things that happen are not a result of you failing, it’s just how did you pivot.”

Ask what you “get to” not what you “lost”

Wiley was no longer allowed to run. Or do CrossFit Games. She had to edit her exercise habits down to weight training with lots of rest time, and an increased focus on nutrition instead. She found herself grieving what she lost. “These things I used to focus on, I’m like ‘It’s gone. It’s gone. It’s gone,’” she says.

A few months later, she was able to start flipping the narrative to what she GETS to do. “I GET to dress my daughter in absolutely wacky outfits. I GET to take 15 minutes of self care.”

Learning about heart health IS self-care

Speaking of self-care, it’s not all bubble baths and nature walks. Wiley says that listening to your own body, and monitoring for weird symptoms or feeling “off” is a must. You can also learn exactly what to do in the event of a heart attack.

She is collaborating with the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women in February, which is heart health month, to spread awareness that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in women, and also the leading cause for new moms. She’s pushing others to learn Hands-Only CPR (hint: perform this type of CPR while singing Stayin Alive or Crazy in Love, and you’ll have the right timing)  if they get the chance.

Finally, she wants moms everywhere to give themselves a dang break and take care of themselves. Their hearts, lives, and families depend on it.