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Woman credits dairy friends and faith with surviving near-death experience

Kimmi Devaney for Progressive Dairyman Published on 12 December 2017

“This is a miracle – plain and simple,” cardiology doctors told Shelly O’Leary in June 2017.

Shelly O'Leary in Lutsen Mountian tram



O’Leary collapsed while singing on stage at a remote Shawano, Wisconsin, church campground where she served as a bible camp teacher. Several nurses in the audience immediately ran to the stage and took turns administering chest compressions. O’Leary was not breathing and did not have a pulse.

The dairy industry and her faith have been constants in O’Leary’s life since childhood. Growing up on a registered Holstein farm in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, she was actively involved on and off the farm with registrations, feeding calves, milking cows, some light field work and 4-H.

O’Leary and her husband, Josh, joined their church as newlyweds nearly a decade ago and are both actively involved in leadership roles. In addition to singing in the choir and on the praise team; teaching Sunday school, Bible studies and youth camps; and Josh’s role as a lead usher, they also serve on a committee to help develop a church in a neighboring community.

Shelly O'Leary

Faith and farming go hand in hand, she says, because so many things farmers rely on, such as the weather, are out of their control and they must trust God to provide the right circumstances. O’Leary learned from a young age that God is always on her side and to always have hope in Him.


“God is good even when – and especially when – life is scary,” she says. “He will never send you through anything difficult and then abandon you.”

After graduating from University of Wisconsin – Madison with an agricultural journalism degree, she worked as a communications specialist for East Central/Select Sires and currently works as the communication and outreach specialist at Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW).

Her favorite part of dairy farming is the people and their commitment to each other and the industry. On that June evening, it was a dairy farmer, who was also a paramedic, who answered the 911 call. He lived across the road from the campground and was on his way out of the house to milk cows and finish chores. Instead of heading to the barn, he drove to the campground where he administered a shock to O’Leary using the automatic defibrillator in his vehicle. When the first shock failed to revive her, he administered a second one and she began to respond.

“At this point, I had been without breath and pulse for at least 15 minutes – I had been dead by medical standards,” she explains.

An ambulance rushed her to the ER at a nearby hospital, where they decided to transfer her via helicopter to a better-equipped hospital in another city. Once on the ground at the second hospital, cardiologists conducted tests to determine the cause of cardiac arrest and were unable to find an obvious reason. Therefore, the tests continued and they implanted a pacemaker.

Updates from nurses, her pastor and friends helped her piece together what happened. O’Leary’s memory was patchy between the time of her collapse at 7:30 p.m. until she sat up in her hospital bed at the second hospital several hours later. Nurses helped fill in the gaps with information received from the ER at the first hospital and the helicopter team. Shelly’s pastor and his wife, as well as some friends, also shared information with doctors about the collapse at the church campground.


“I began regaining consciousness during the helicopter flight and remember seeing the horizon and feeling the tilt of the helicopter, but I do not remember anything else until I was in the hospital bed hours later,” she says. “I felt like I operated in ‘stun mode’ and there are still some details that I don’t know.”

Family, church friends and co-workers aided in her recovery through prayer, help around the house and a flexible work schedule. She is very appreciative of her incredibly supportive co-workers and feels blessed that she and Josh both work for organizations that were flexible with time off for follow-up doctor appointments, she says. She was not allowed to drive for 90 days after surgery and both of her jobs – with PDPW and Pampered Chef – made it easy for her to work from home as needed.

Josh and Shelly O'Leary

“I still feel supremely grateful,” O’Leary says. “It’s hard to wrap your head around having been dead for 15 minutes and then being alive again with absolutely no mental or physical damage.”

O’Leary’s longstanding commitment to her faith played a key role in her recovery, and she credits her relationship with God for helping guide her through it.

“God is my rock,” she explains. “When I began to realize the magnitude of what He brought me through, I felt bowled over with thankfulness, and I feel incredibly honored and humbled that God chose me to go through this amazing journey.”

Along with miracles come lessons.

“Don’t wait for tragedy to strike to be good to others and serve them out of love,” O’Leary says. “And if you haven’t already, seek a relationship with God. When you already have good relationships in place, you can rest easy when the storm comes, knowing you have an unbeatable team who will rush to your aid to help.”  end mark

Kimmi Devaney is the agricultural marketing and industry development manager with the Indiana State Department of Agriculture. She also writes an agricultural blog.

PHOTO 1: Shelly O’Leary on a mountain tram at Lutsen Mountain in Minnesota during an earned Pampered Chef incentive trip.

PHOTO 2: Shelly O’Leary participating as student in a seminar for Sunday school teachers. Teaching Sunday school is one of the many church activities that Shelly enjoys.

PHOTO 3: Shelly O’Leary and her husband, Josh, at an annual church fundraiser for the youth in their church to attend a national youth event. Photos courtesy of Shelly O’Leary.

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