COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS It was just a recurring thought, a nagging feeling that she ought to call a doctor, that saved Kathy Mendenhall's life.
"I'd had a little bit of problem with blood clots in the past, and when I did they told me what symptoms were more serious," said the Brighton High head volleyball coach. "One of those symptoms was shortness of breath."
Mendenhall struggled with the breathing problem for a couple of days after her July 9 knee surgery.
"I wasn't sure it was serious," she said. "It just kept coming into my head to call somebody."
But she was reluctant to call a doctor or visit an emergency room only to be told it was nothing serious. Mendenhall, instead, called her LDS bishop, Brian Shiozawa, who happens to be the head of St. Mark's Hospital emergency room.
"He just said, 'Go to the emergency room; don't stop for a Slurpee; just go straight there,'" she said. "I was really lucky ... I probably wouldn't have gone if he hadn't talked me into it."
Medical tests revealed Mendenhall had multiple clots in both lungs a condition that can kill without warning.
"The next stop could have been my brain or my heart," she said. Blood thinners, shots and five days in the hospital followed, and eventually Mendenhall was released. There have been complications, like the fact that she still hasn't regained the energy she possessed before the blood clots and subsequent treatments. She also was without the help of assistant coaches for the first few weeks of practice, which can be the most hectic and difficult days.
"I have had seven kids; I've had a stent put in for a blocked artery three years ago, and I've always bounced back," Mendenhall said. "This time I just haven't been able to bounce back."
And there have been blessings, like the fact that she's raised six volleyball-playing daughters, two of whom were able to help her.
"I was trying to figure out how to do this without Chris (Gorny) and Adam (Fernandez)," she said. "My daughters Christina Shurtz and Kassie Mendenhall stepped in and helped. Tryouts were the real mess. They were great, and we just got through it."
Mendenhall is coaching the Bengals, ranked No. 4 this season, after taking a few years off from prep coaching because of her two youngest daughters. Lori Mendenhall is a junior all-state setter, while Emily Mendenhall is a freshman who may break from the family tradition of setting to blaze her own trail.
"She's sort of interested in her own identity," said Kathy. "She's been hitting and playing libero."
Kathy Mendenhall played volleyball at BYU in 1974, and 1977 and '78. She has seven children, six of whom are daughters, and five of them are setters. She thought she was done with coaching about four years ago, when she turned the program over to former BYU setter Jeremiah Larsen. He led the program to its first state title two years later and then quit to move out of state. When Brighton High couldn't find another volleyball coach, it called Kathy.
"When Brighton called me, I just said I'm not what I used to be so I need to get really good assistants," she said. "Now that I'm older I need to surround myself with good assistants. I begged Chris to come. He's probably on his way to a college job."
She said her own daughters were the biggest lure, although she said she loves teaching the young women on the Bengal squad.
"Deep down I love it," she said. "People think I'm crazy, but I let a lot of things go. Like, I let my girls choose whether or not they wanted to go to homecoming on the Saturday we were playing in a tournament."
Some chose to play, others to attend the dance. Mendenhall understands both sets of rationale.
"If the high school experience is what you're really into, then go and do it," she said. Mendenhall even has an outside hitter, Aurie Robinson, who is juggling cheerleading with the demands of playing for one of the state's best programs.
"She came and asked me about it, and I said, 'If it's important to you, we'll work with you,'" Mendenhall said.
Mendenhall and her daughters agree that there are special challenges to deal with when your parent is also your coach. But they've navigated those issues with a lot of conversation and hard work.
"It's fun because I'm around her more," said Lori Mendenhall. "But sometimes it's harder because she's the coach; I have to play twice as hard to be able to have any floor time."
And while both girls say they know their mother is one of the best coaches around, Kathy said it usually takes confirmation from an outside source to convince her children she knows what she's talking about.
"My sisters help me with my attitude, but my Mom helps me with the technical stuff," Lori said. Adds Emily, "My Mom's advice is usually to 'pick it up.'"
And while the Bengals are atop the region standings and enjoying a successful season, Kathy Mendenhall is still struggling to regain her health.
"I still feel a little under the weather," she said. "About 10 days ago, I was diagnosed with walking pneumonia."
But she gets through each day with the help of her daughters, her assistant coaches and the Bengal volleyball players.
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