Recalling My Heart Surgery and
Humorist Lewis Grizzard

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Greg Markley

By GREG MARKLEY

In 2008, long-time New York Congressman Charles Rangel published a book titled “And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Halls of Congress.” He writes that after the bloody Battle of Kunu-ri in Korea in 1950 as a 20-year-old staff sergeant he has not had a day as bad — his team faced the Chinese Army on all sides. He earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

A year ago, on Feb. 15, 2021, I had open-heart surgery, a triple bypass. So today I wish to recount that hospital stay and the weeks of recovery that followed. Also, I write a little about a famous columnist who faced a heart valve problem with humor and determination: Southern writer Lewis Grizzard.

Grizzard grew up a 56 minute drive from Opelika, in Moreland, Georgia. He was a sportswriter but evolved into a humor columnist, the most famous of the 1980s and 1990s in the South. His books had titles like “If Love Were Oil, I’d be About a Quart Low,” “Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself,” and “They Tore Out My Heart and Stomped that Sucker Flat.” That last book shows the struggles of people with major heart problems and how humor can dial down the fear.

  I had been seeing an Opelika cardiologist for years but did not have any stents or balloons put in except four over a period of five years (2005-10). A chart in December 2020 showed a lot of plaque and it was obvious I needed heart surgery soon.  I was angry at myself, having been an avid runner until 1996 and a diligent 3-mile a day walker for the past 20-plus years.

But it was eating too much of the wrong things — pizza, fried items, fast food, etc. — that gave me a heart nearly inundated with junk the size of a Buick. At a local restaurant I had the early signs of an impending heart attack — chest pains, dizziness, slow breathing and a headache. So I went to the East Alabama Health emergency room and was admitted.

Not long after, I had a heart attack but fortunately at the best place to have one — in a hospital. I remember a heart surgeon pounding on my chest, but I couldn’t feel much else. During the surgery a day or two later, the doctors graciously sent messages to my wife Angel noting how I was doing. Things went well, but a doctor did say near the finish that “We’re not out of the woods yet!”

Since everything else had proceeded routinely, my wife Angel was eager to get the four-hour operation done. Over the days of recovery at the hospital, my wife could only see me one hour in the morning and one hour at night, due to COVID-19 precautions. But we certainly understood the safety value of that.

During the recuperation period at home, I did not want to be like some men — wanting to “jump the clock” and engage fully in life without their hearts getting the needed six-to-eight-week rest period. There is a strict number of pounds that recovering heart patients must not exceed when carrying a parcel or item. Once or twice, in the latter weeks of recovery, I nearly forgot what NOT to do.

It all worked out in the end. I was impatient with the light walking, especially where it says “Day such and such — walk one-half mile.” To me walking just a half mile or a mile is to exercise what miniature golf is to professional golf. My weight has increased only 3-to-4-pounds in the first year after my bypass.

“If you want something sweet, order the pound cake,” wrote Lewis Grizzard. “Anybody who puts sugar in the corn bread is a heathen who doesn’t love the Lord, not to mention Southeastern Conference football.” He died in 1994 at 47 years old of complications from his fourth heart-valve surgery. Some of his ashes were scattered at the 50-yard line of Stanford Stadium at the University of Georgia.

I am eating better, with less wasted calories and fewer fried foods. My cardiologist said we have made good progress, and I did not need to get any further tests this year. One of the surgeons from my operation stated that my walking was very helpful in my survival from the open-heart surgery.

For all who have undergone any major surgery, it can be a life-defining moment. We should note our failings that caused the heart troubles. We must be smarter with what we eat, make exercise a bigger part of our life and be thankful for whatever time we have left here on Earth. I began that process last year, and like politician Charles Rangel, “I have not had a bad day yet.”

Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has Masters’ in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 12 years. gm.markley@charter.net

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