Wednesday 22 Oct 2014

Information and opinions presented here do not always represent the views of the American Heart Association.

STORIES FROM THE HEART: She overcame a stroke; her sister didn’t, stoking her passion to educate others

Published: 5:30 pm CDT, November 6, 2013

Enduring what she thought was a crushing migraine, Bethany Calley left her job at the sheriff’s department and headed to the store for some medicine. She was making her way across a parking lot when “it felt like my head exploded.”

“It felt like thick fluid was running through my head,” she said. “It felt like I had four pipes running through my head; two forward and two backward.”

She couldn’t see or speak. She didn’t know if anyone was around. Unsure how to make it back to her car, she just started walking until she bumped into it. Once inside, she managed to pull out her BlackBerry and start typing. She must have hit someone on her contact list because she could hear someone calling her name. They were screaming her name over and over. Bethany kept typing.

Finally, help arrived.

***

Bethany, then 30, had a hemorrhagic stroke, caused by a ruptured blood vessel in the brain. The doctors told her she needed brain surgery, had a 50 percent chance of survival and that loved ones should be notified.

“I’m a really tough cookie, but I knew it was bad,” said Bethany who had previously survived a serious car accident. “I told the doctor, ‘Let’s roll. Let’s do it.’”

Still, she could “feel the somber in the room.”

Doctors told her family that if she survived, the road to recovery would be long, including about eight weeks in intensive care and a rehabilitation hospital.

Then Bethany showed just how tough of a cookie she is.

***

Bethany was comforted in her stroke recovery by her family: (from left) sister Nanette Calley-West, brother Mike Calley, sister Michele Calley-Vallor and brother Patrick Calley.

She regained her ability to walk and was back at work full-time, all in less than two months.

It wasn’t as smooth as that may seem. The cognitive damage in her brain caused her to have a “potty mouth” for four to six weeks, but luckily her normal conversation returned. Always somewhat detail-oriented, that trait was now in overdrive. Even when she stayed at her tidy mother’s house after leaving rehab, Bethany couldn’t keep from organizing the salad dressing bottles on the table. She’s remained a bit obsessive-compulsive.

“I have spreadsheets built for everything, color coded,” she said

She’s also been quite active physically. She completed her first triathlon eight months after her stroke. Today, at 39, she can run marathons – just like her older sister, Nanette.

***

A year and a half after Bethany’s stroke, Nanette had a hemorrhagic stroke, too.

She died nine days later. She was 42.

Both women had high blood pressure, as did their dad and three other siblings. High blood pressure also ran in the family on her father’s side.

Bethany got her diagnosis during an annual physical when she was 26. The doctor told her to monitor it and report back. She heard the same thing during visits when she was 27 and 28. Still, she ignored the advice.

“I thought, `I’m a runner. I’m healthy,’” she said.

She’s since learned that high blood pressure is considered a “silent killer.” Because it was described as “silent,” she was lulled into a false sense of security that it was not serious, and thus she did not seriously treat it.

“It’s not like you don’t feel good,” she said. “You don’t have symptoms. You’ve just got to go check your blood pressure.” And treat it.

She now keeps a blood pressure cuff at her desk and checks it daily. She also takes medicine to help control her blood pressure and migraines.

***

Now a human resources manager for Ada County, Idaho, Bethany has shared her story numerous times since a friend first asked her to speak at a new legislators’ breakfast meeting in her home state.

She’s participated in Heart Walks, inspired kids at kickoff rallies for Jump Rope for Heart and Hoops for Heart, and traveled to Washington, D.C., as part of the American Heart Association’s National Lobby Day.

She is on the executive leadership team of the Go Red for Women luncheon on Nov. 8 that will be celebrating its 10th anniversary in Boise. And her commitment has motivated her to be part of the Circle of Red, a group of women who make a personal financial commitment to the Go Red movement.

While she has been involved since shortly after she got out of rehab, losing her sister “just ignited my passion.”

“From my point of view, if every time there’s just one person impacted by my story, it’s worth it,” Bethany said. “Because it’s one family, one sister, one brother, whoever it is, maybe they walk away with one thing that will make a difference for them.”

***

Do you know a “Story from the Heart” we should tell? 

Send an email to stories@heart.org that’s as brief or as detailed as you’d like.

Previous “Stories from the Heart” include:

Rapper’s wife urges empowerment through fitness, knowledge about stroke

Survivor says Affordable Care Act may have saved her life

Nurse who missed her own stroke symptoms now encouraging others to learn warning signs