From Chicken Soup for the Country Soul

Achy Breaky Heart

Don Von Tress wrote “Achy Breaky Heart” in early 1990. At that time, Don was hanging wallpaper for a living. He began the song while driving around in his van from one job site to another. As Don tells it . . .

I spent about 80 percent of my time on the road driving between jobs. Most of that time was spent writing. I remember singing the chorus of “Achy Breaky Heart” into a little tape recorder and thinking I had some thing pretty good. When I got home that night, I pulled out my new guitar and amplifier I had gotten for Christmas of 1989. The new guitar had really inspired my writing, some thing I had been pursuing since 1963 with little success, and the signature guitar riff on the song came pretty quickly. When I finished the song that night, some people may think this is crazy, but I distinctly remember having a clear vision of little kids singing and dancing. It was overwhelming and I felt then that “Achy Breaky Heart” was going to be special.

It was ravaged by the critics. Travis Tritt said aloud what many other country artists were whispering under their breath—that this song did not represent country music, nor did Billy Ray Cyrus have any right to call himself a country artist.

But Billy Ray’s fans didn’t care what the critics, or Travis, said. They turned out in droves at his concerts and at the record stores. The Some Gave All album soared past platinum sales of 1 million and continues selling today with a total sales figure of close to 10 million.

In the letters we received from Billy Ray Cyrus’s fans, they spoke of how “Achy Breaky Heart” had miraculously helped cure physical ailments, end lonely bouts of depression and even served as the impetus for one woman’s one hundred–pound weight loss. Many people wrote that they had never been country music fans until they heard Billy Ray and were converted by his rock-tinged, “twang-less” vocals. Scores of young people from toddlers to teenagers, traditionally not a prime listening audience for country music, were infected by the “Cyrus Virus.”

One of these new young fans was eleven-year-old Brooke Gall of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania.

Brooke hung Billy Ray posters all over her bedroom, where she spent hours listening to his music. She wore Billy Ray T-shirts and watched CMT (Country Music Television), eagerly awaiting each time they would air a Billy Ray video.

Brooke Gall was like millions of other preteen girls—a Billy Ray fanatic. But unlike most of the other young girls, Brooke was different. She was indeed a special fan—for Brooke has Down’s syndrome.

One of the more serious characteristics of Down’s syndrome can be heart defects. Brooke had her first heart surgery at sixteen months of age when doctors repaired a hole between the chambers of her heart.

Her second heart surgery took place on September 24, 1992, just three months after her eleventh birthday. Brooke had contracted a virus which attacks the heart. The virus caused scar tissue to form on the walls of her heart valve. Surgery was scheduled to repair the valve, or, if necessary, replace it. The doctors decided the valve had to be replaced. The procedure would be risky, with Brooke facing a fifty-fifty chance of surviving.

Brooke traveled to University Hospital in Syracuse, New York, ninety miles from her home in Susquehanna. Her mom and stepdad, Mr. and Mrs. Scott Cooper, checked into the Ronald McDonald house near the hospital so they could be by Brooke’s side for support.

The day Brooke was admitted to the hospital, she wore her favorite outfit. Not a lacy dress, or a fancy skirt and blouse, but her prized possession—a Billy Ray Cyrus “Achy Breaky” T-shirt.

Her family anxiously awaited as the surgery began. Hours later, the operation was successfully completed. Brooke was placed on a respirator and given morphine. Now her family began perhaps the most difficult wait— to see if Brooke’s young body could survive the stress of the operation.

Brooke was unresponsive the first day after the surgery. The second day came and went. Brooke remained on the respirator unresponsive. On the third day, still no signs of consciousness. Late on the fourth day following the surgery, the doctors grew increasingly concerned about Brooke’s failure to respond. They discussed doing a tracheotomy, another surgical procedure that would tax Brooke’s already fragile body. The doctors finally asked the family if they could think of something—anything— that the family could bring in that Brooke might possibly respond to. Brooke’s family had exactly what the doctor ordered. The Some Gave All cassette by Billy Ray Cyrus.

On the fifth day, as Brooke was on the downside of her dose of paralyzer, her family watched as they started the cassette on “Achy Breaky Heart.” After not moving for five days, Brooke literally, in seconds, began to sway her arms in a dancing motion while still in her hospital bed on the respirator. Within an hour, Brooke was off the respirator, sitting up in the bed and asking for some of Ronald McDonald’s French fries.

At 4:00 A.M. the following morning, Brooke was still wide awake and had all the nurses in the cardiac care unit enthusiastically “boogyin’” with her to Billy Ray’s music.

A short time later, Brooke had recuperated enough from her surgery to leave the hospital. As she was walking out of the hospital, she was wearing yet another special T-shirt, one her family had custom-made for her during her hospital stay. The words they had imprinted on the shirt said what Brooke’s smile reflected—MY ACHY BREAKY HEART IS ALL BETTER NOW.

Once Brooke had fully recuperated from her operation, she had one thing on her mind—meeting Billy Ray Cyrus in person. Brooke’s grandmother wrote Billy Ray’s manager, Jack McFadden, and told him the story of Brooke’s miraculous recovery. Billy Ray was to be in Binghamton, New York, on November 3, for a concert. Arrangements were made for Brooke and her family to attend the show and meet Billy Ray backstage.

Their tickets were three rows from the stage, but evidently Billy Ray knew where his biggest fan was sitting that night. Brooke’s mom says Billy Ray spent 90 percent of the concert right in front of Brooke. He even tossed one of his coveted towels, used to wipe his brow, directly to Brooke.

Afterward, the entire family went backstage. Brooke was beyond thrilled at meeting her idol, but she was not shy. She asked to sing “Achy Breaky Heart” together with Billy Ray. There possibly has never been a more touching duet. Brooke then presented Billy Ray with a rose she had brought to the concert. Billy Ray seemed genuinely moved. He proved it by asking, “Brooke, do you like flowers?” When Brooke replied, “Yes,” Billy Ray scooped up every rose he had been given that night by hundreds of fans and gave them all to Brooke.

As Brooke left the arena that night, she was smiling just as she had been when she left the hospital a year earlier. She was once again wearing a T-shirt. A picture of Billy Ray Cyrus was on the front, and on the back was the title of her favorite song— “Achy Breaky Heart.” A simple, childlike song which had touched millions, but perhaps saved the life of one—Brooke Gall.

Bruce Burch

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