Recalling my heart surgery and comedian Lewis Grizzard

Greg Markley


In 2008, Charles Rangel, a longtime New York congressman, 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 did not have such a bad day – his team faced the Chinese army of all the sides. He earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

A year ago, on February 15, 2021, I underwent open heart surgery, triple bypass surgery. So today, I want to talk about this stay in the hospital 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: the southern writer Lewis Grizzard.

Grizzard grew up a 56-minute drive from Opelika, in Moreland, Georgia. He was a sports columnist but evolved into a humor columnist, most famous in the 1980s and 1990s in the South. His books had titles like ‘If love was oil I’d be about a liter away’, ‘Elvis is dead and I don’t feel so good about myself’ and ‘They tore my heart out and trampled on this flat sucker”. This latest book shows the struggles of people with major heart conditions and how humor can alleviate fear.

I had been seeing a cardiologist from Opelika for years, but I hadn’t had any stents or balloons except four over a five year period (2005-10). A chart from December 2020 showed a lot of plaque and it was obvious that I needed heart surgery soon. I was mad at myself, having been an avid runner until 1996 and an avid 3 mile daily walker for over 20 years.

But that was eating too many bad things – pizza, fried food, fast food, etc. – which gave me a heart almost awash with bric-a-brac the size of a Buick. At a local restaurant, I had the first signs of an impending heart attack – chest pains, dizziness, slow breathing and a headache. So I went to East Alabama Health ER and was admitted.

Shortly after, I had a heart attack, but fortunately in the best place to have one – in a hospital. I remember a heart surgeon punching my chest, but I couldn’t feel anything else. During the operation, a day or two later, the doctors graciously texted my wife Angel to let her know how I was doing. Things went well, but a doctor said on arrival: “We’re not out of the woods yet!

As everything else had been routine, my wife Angel was eager to do the four hour operation. During the days of recovery in the hospital, my wife was only able to see me for one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening, due to COVID-19 precautions. But we certainly understood the security value of that.

During the recovery period at home, I didn’t want to be like some men – wanting to “jump the clock” and fully engage in life without their hearts getting the necessary six to eight week rest period. There is a strict number of pounds that recovering heart patients should not exceed when carrying a package or item. Once or twice in the last few weeks of recovery I almost forgot what NOT to do.

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

“If you want something sweet, order the pound cake,” wrote Lewis Grizzard. “Anyone who puts sugar in cornbread is a pagan who doesn’t love the Lord, let alone Southeastern Conference football.” He died in 1994 at age 47 from complications from his fourth heart valve surgery. Some of his ashes were scattered on the 50-yard line at Stanford Stadium at the University of Georgia.

I eat better, with fewer wasted calories and fewer fried foods. My cardiologist said we made good progress and I didn’t need to have any more tests this year. One of the surgeons in my operation said that my walk helped me a lot to survive open heart surgery.

For anyone who has had major surgery, this can be a defining moment in life. We should note our failures that caused heart trouble. We need to be smarter with what we eat, exercise more of our lives, and be grateful for the time we have left here on Earth. I started this process last year, and like politician Charles Rangel, “I haven’t had a bad day yet.”

Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has a master’s degree in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the military and civilian life, he contributed to The Observer for 12 years. [email protected]