By Jeff Rickard, as told to Stephanie Watson
As a host of SiriusXM’s NFL Radio and ESPNU Radio, I spend a lot of time talking about sports. I've also put in time on the field. I played college football, and after graduating, I dabbled in just about every sport imaginable. I've also been racing bikes since my 20s, and I continue to ride in a lot of cycling events.
Even though I'm in my late 50s, I'd say I'm much fitter than most men my age. I eat a pretty healthy diet and I rarely drink alcohol. So my brush with death about a year ago caught me completely off guard.
It was a crisp fall day, and I was outside my Indianapolis home raking leaves. I'd only been raking for 5 or 10 minutes, when suddenly, my chest got tight and my left side started tingling in a very strange way. My symptoms fit every description of a heart attack I'd ever read about.
I went inside, took two baby aspirin, and told my wife, "We have to go to the hospital right now. I'm having a heart attack." She's the daughter of a surgeon, and she took me at my word. Thankfully, we live close to a hospital. We jumped in the car and arrived at Indiana University Health North Hospital within minutes. (Editor’s note: Doctors advise against driving yourself, or being driven, to the ER when you think you are having a heart attack. Call 911 and take an ambulance.)
The hospital did an EKG, which confirmed that I was having a heart attack, and just 40 minutes after my symptoms started, doctors were operating on me, inserting a stent into my clogged artery to prop it open.
What they didn't immediately realize was that they had nicked the artery while placing the stent, and I was slowly bleeding out into my chest. I coded twice. At one point, my heart stopped beating for nearly 30 minutes. I was given three heart shocks to bring me back, while my medical team gave me CPR and oxygen to keep me alive.
I have two boys who are 11 and 12. When I think about them now, I get a little emotional, as I know I need to be here for them. Before I went into the operating room that day, I remember telling my wife, "Don't worry, today's not my day."
They finally brought my heartbeat back and stabilized me enough to LifeLine me to Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. Honestly, I don't remember anything that happened over the next 3 days.
Get Hurt, Get Back Up
When I finally did wake up, I looked at my recovery the same way I did when I hurt my knee or broke my collarbone. When you're an athlete and you get hurt, you get up and you work to get better. And that's what I did.
The trouble was, my body wouldn't cooperate for the first week. While I was in the ICU, I had six tubes coming out of my body from every direction imaginable. Then, when they took out the intubation tube, I had terrible gas and was burping almost 24/7. I felt miserable.
I couldn't do anything. I simply had to lie still in my bed in the cardiovascular critical care unit and allow my body to heal. I credit my wife for getting me through those really hard 6 or 7 days. She's a force of nature, and she went into full-on action mode, managing my care.
After about a week, they moved me out of the ICU and into a regular hospital room. Once I'd spent a couple of days there, I finally got to go home.
Slowly Coming Back
It was very clear that my body wasn't in the same shape it had been in before my heart attack. I was used to riding my bike for hours. Now, I could barely walk across a room.
Fortunately, they have a fantastic cardiac rehabilitation program at Indiana University Health, and I started going there about a month after my heart attack. I taught my body how to work out again, refocused on an even healthier diet, and started up again with slow steps on a treadmill. That soon turned into longer walks, pedaling an exercise bike, and lifting light weights. I built up my strength, speed, and stamina a little bit at a time over the next 90 days, but I kept getting stronger and stronger.
By April, I was again riding my bike for long distances, and in May, I finished an 82-mile ride in just over 4½ hours. It was a little bit shorter and slower than what I'd been doing before, but I was just happy to be able to ride again. Eventually I worked back up to riding 200 miles a week.
Coming so close to death has changed me in profound ways. I've always valued my time with my family, but I value it even more now. I'm also more concerned about how my employees are doing, and I'm more aware of their lives outside of work.
Look Under the Hood
What I hope men will learn from my experience is the importance of routinely getting themselves checked out. Look under the hood. Check your heart. Make sure it's doing OK. And be very aware of the warning signs of a heart attack. If you notice symptoms, call 911 right away. The fact that I was in the operating room 30 minutes after my symptoms appeared is probably why I'm still alive today.
Jeff Rickard has a nearly 40-year career as a sportscaster, including on ESPN Radio and Sirius XM. He hosts shows on MLB Network Radio, as well as several other sports channels.