Riding For His Life (or How I Was Saved by a Tricky Wife)

Robert Blodgett is clear: He was tricked into staying alive. If he’d had his way, he’d be dead from a heart attack. It likely would have been massive as three of his coronary arteries were 99 percent blocked and two others weren’t much better.

He’d spent the night before — September 10, 2012 — in pain. “I was having crushing pain in my arms, but I wouldn’t let anybody take me to the hospital,” Robert said. The next day, his wife, Marilyn, like himself a nurse, tricked him into going to the hospital. “We have a home health agency, and she said we needed to get some orders signed by a doctor at the hospital. But it was an ambush physical.”

Robert and Marilyn with granddaughter Siena

The cardiologist did an EKG and asked about chest or collarbone pain. None, Robert reported. Shoulder blade pain? Arm numbness? Indigestion? To each Robert said no because the pain had stopped. “The doctor leaned in and said, ‘I really, really, really need you to tell me you’re not doing well.’ I said, ‘Okay, you’re the doctor; I’m not feeling well.’” Within seconds, a nurse came in with a wheelchair, took him to the ER, where another EKG was done. “The last thing I remember hearing is, ‘This is worse than 10 minutes ago.’”

His brother-in-law happened to be working in the ER that day and texted the operating room: “Get ready for an emergency bypass.” The nurse who got that text was Robert’s niece, who was in charge of the OR and thus had to turn over her duties.

The doctors found five occluded coronary arteries, but operated only on the three most blocked. “When I woke up in the ICU, the doctor told me that I was literally 30 minutes from dead,” Robert said. “He said if I had done anything differently that day and hadn’t gotten to him when I did, I would be dead.”

Robert had no idea he had heart disease, but he didn’t really know his family history. His father had left the family when Robert was an infant, and then Robert left home right after high school. In 1982, at age 21, he moved to Houston where he had a couple of brothers.

He was a computer programmer / operator and tech guy, and Houston was booming. He married Marilyn, who has extended family in the Philippines, and he became close to his father-in-law: “My strong sense of family comes from Florencio Menodiado, the greatest man I ever knew,” Robert said. The young couple’s family grew by three — Christopher, Anthony and Robyn. Robert became a nurse and then an entrepreneur in that field. He met his own father once before he died, when Robert was 36. “I understand he had a heart condition and had had bypass surgery before I had met him,” he said.

During those years Robert’s weight and girth increased as he indulged his love of food. He tells a revealing story: “Marilyn’s habit is to eat half of what’s on her plate when we go out. We used to order two meals, and I’d eat all mine and half hers,” he said. That paid off to the tune of just under 300 pounds by the time he had the emergency triple bypass at age 51.

In addition to the weight and the likely genetic propensity for heart disease, Robert had another serious risk factor in the mix — diabetes, which was diagnosed three years before his heart attack and controlled with oral meds. He found that controlling his blood sugar helped him control his temper: “My personality changed greatly,” he said.

It is likely that Robert had high blood pressure, too. He didn’t monitor it at the time, but after the surgery, his doctor put him on blood pressure meds.

After his heart attack and surgery, Robert didn’t participate in cardiac rehab, but he did return to bicycling. He had originally become a distance cyclist in high school out of love for a girl who lived 15 miles away, but he found he loved riding. The summer before his senior year, he took a 2,000-mile, two-month-long, meandering bike ride through New Hampshire, Vermont and New York on his way to see his sister in Illinois. “I’d ride till it got hot, nap a few hours and ride a few more hours before I set up my tent,” he said. “I did odd jobs when I needed money, but otherwise it was just me and my bike, and that was it.”

Survivor and cyclist Robert Blodgett

About a year after his heart attack, his son, Anthony, started riding and invited him to join him. Robert needed something positive, because he was severely depressed at the time. “I just wasn’t with it. My businesses really suffered,” he said.

Anthony used an approach Robert couldn’t refuse: Riding would be a father-and-son activity. “I never could refuse my kids anything, so I agreed. We started slow and easy, but I found I really loved it,” he said. Anthony was more of a recreational biker, and it wasn’t long before Robert was putting in the miles.

On an organized ride he got lost when a sign showing the route fell down. “I ended up going into this town, no idea where the heck I am,” he said. “I Googled it on my phone and realized I had overshot the street and had to go back. So, instead of doing 25 miles like I had planned, I did 55 miles. That made me feel really good.”

The riding helped with his weight and cardio, and he started to feel stronger and faster, walk straighter, and have more vitality. “When I first started riding again, I would go about eight miles an hour, and in those first days, I’d be happy if I did a mile.”

Eventually he worked his way up to a 17-mph/20-milesa- day average, when in the summer of 2015, he hit a truck and broke his collarbone, which kept him off his bike for a whole year. It was a huge setback, putting him back “not at square one, but I’d say square three,” he said. But he worked his way back and now rides 20 to 40 miles a day at about 14 to 16 mph, often along the bayous that are common in Houston, the same ones that were so affected by this past summer’s 500-year floods.

Not only did the water ruin his cycling habitat, it also inundated his home, and he is in the midst of rebuilding and living as a refugee at his sister-in-law’s home. He has returned to his morning routine: “I get up about 6 or 7 o’clock and hop on my bike. How far I ride and where depends on whether I can get back in time for Marilyn to go to church,” he said. “Normally that’s 25 to 40 miles in an hour to an hour and a half to 3 hours.” In his cycling pack at all times are fast-acting medicines for chest pain, clotting and hypertension.

After the hospital, Robert lost over 80 pounds, eventually reaching 220 pounds. He still struggles with his love of food, and his weight has crept back to 230 as he has lost training time because of the floods and working on his house. His diet is a work in progress, but he and Marilyn only share one order now, and he has given up sodas. While working on achieving his weight goal of 180 – 200 pounds, “I went from a steak-and-potato man to more like a chicken-and-salad man,” he said.

By far the hardest part of Robert’s recovery has been emotional. “What always kept me grounded was my children,” he said. “Whenever I was really down, I would think about my family and that would put me on an even keel.”

His advice to others: “First, find your focal point, what is so important to you in your life that you wouldn’t want to lose it. To me, it was my family; other people, it may be something else. Second, start exercising. It’s like I tell new riders when they say, ‘I only did…’ I tell them ‘little by little.’ The longer you ride, you’re naturally going to build up endurance. Just listen to your body; it knows. If you’re feeling any discomfort, stop. Don’t push it. Third, take your medicine, change your diet and lose weight. You’ve got to change your lifestyle in order to keep that weight off. I want to stay around and be here for my children and for my first granddaughter, Siena, who was born in July.”

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