On Saturday, the day after Christmas (Dec. 26, 2015), I went to my farm on Colonel’s Island to try out some new farm equipment and to play with some of the “toys” that I received from family as Christmas presents. I was hooking up a rotary tiller to my tractor when I suddenly became short of breath and started sweating profusely. I logically attributed both conditions to a respiratory problem that began In October and which still lingered (particularly since my longtime cardiologist had told me “it’s not your heart” after I had a sonogram and other medical examinations of my heart and because a reputable respiratory specialist later concluded after further tests that the issue was most likely a respiratory infection, for which I underwent more than a month of treatment).
My breathing worsened. So I quickly postulated that the problem was not respiratory-related and, instead, naively concluded that I had heat exhaustion. I figured that, if I cooled down my body temperature, I would be OK. I got in my truck, turned the air-conditioner to maximum, and headed home to Hinesville.
Driving slowly from Colonel’s Island, the problem worsened and, as I passed the old Dorchester Academy (about 5 miles from my farm), I lost almost all feeling in my arms and hands, began having intense pressure on my chest and became disoriented. I decided to pull over, thinking if I rested a moment, I would get relief. Nearing the Liberty County Industrial Park, I looked for a spot to stop, but automobiles of employees getting off work there were streaming from the park, so I drove on, crossing Interstate 95, intending to stop at one of the three convenience stores there. A car suddenly pulled alongside my truck so that I couldn’t pull off, forcing me to drive on into Midway, where I stopped at the Clyde’s convenience store.
I don’t remember if I turned my engine off or not but, as soon as I got there, I mustered the energy to go into the store. “Please call 911. I think I’m having a heart attack,” I told the young lady nearest me.
There was no place to sit in the store, so I went back to my truck. Before I could get there, I collapsed, falling to the concrete sidewalk, struggling for every breath of air as the pressure on my chest became more and more intense. Suddenly, I heard a voice, looked up, and saw a young man. “Mister, I once worked as an EMT. Let me help you,” he said. He grabbed my right arm, pulled me up so I was sitting, and began feeling my arm trying to find a pulse. He said, “You are going to be all right, OK?” Between gasps, I said, “I’m dying. Please tell my wife I love her.”
The young store clerk joined us. She was on her cellphone giving directions as to my location to the Liberty County Emergency Medical Services. I suddenly remembered that taking an aspirin helps abate a heart attack. Between the rasping, I uttered, “Aspirin.” The young man who had come to my aid told the girl to get me an aspirin. She ran in the store and returned with one. The young man told me to place it under my tongue. As I did, I heard the jubilant sound of a siren as it neared. Later, I learned that from the time the call was placed to 911 until the ambulance arrived was less than 10 minutes.
The emergency medical technicians immediately put me on a gurney, loaded me in the ambulance, and began giving me emergency cardiological sustenance treatment. They assured me they were going to do everything possible to keep me alive, and they did.
It seemed like forever as the ambulance flew up I-95 from Midway to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Savannah while I struggled to breathe with what seemed like 100 elephants sitting on and crushing my chest. In reality, it was a little over 20 minutes when the ambulance stopped and the medical staff of St. Joseph’s rushed me to and through the emergency room, prepping and taking me posthaste to the cardio-catheterization lab.
There I was met by another voice: “Mr. Wilkes, I’m Dr. Gary Elkin. I’m a cardiologist. We’re going to take care of you, OK?”
I grunted, “Doogie Howser.”
“I haven’t heard that in a long time,” he replied.
Between the rasping, I said, “2000 ... put my stent in.” (Back then, he looked so young that he reminded me of Doogie Howser; thus, the nickname I gave him.)
By then, medical staff had the catheter in my right groin.
“Mr. Wilkes, your stent is completely blocked. You have what we call a ‘widow maker.’ You are a blessed man. Another five or 10 minutes, and I’m not sure what the outcome would have been,” Dr. Elkin told me. “I’m going to try to clean out the stent for you.”
A moment later, he said, “I’m about to do something. Tell me if it helps relieve your pain.”
Suddenly, all at once, it felt like someone had ripped apart the “plastic bag on my face” that had been smothering me and let in a magnificent gush of fresh air into my lungs.
“Thank you, Jesus,” I cried. “Thank you, Lord.”
“If I could, I would go up there and kiss you,” I muttered to Dr. Elkin.
“That won’t be necessary,” he joked.
“I’m about to do something else. Let me know how it makes you feel,” he told me as I watched on a monitor him placing another stent in my primary anterior artery.
In an instant, I felt like a new man.
“Yes, Lord. It helped. I can feel blood flowing,” I said, rejoicing.
Outside the catheterization lab, Janelle and Courtney were waiting on me. Tears of joy filled my eyes as I was wheeled out on the gurney to them because, an hour earlier, I never thought I would see them again in this life.
Janelle told me, “Promise me you will slow down and take care of yourself.”
Thirty minutes later, I was in a hospital bed in the critical-care unit.
Two days later (Monday), my regular cardiologist, Geoffrey Peters, released me from the hospital after all post-cardiac infarction tests revealed that my heart was functioning well enough for me to resume treatment on an outpatient basis.
Tuesday night, I began having problems breathing again and chest pains. Andrew Watt, Courtney’s boyfriend, rushed me to the emergency room at St. Joseph’s. The attending physician determined from X-rays and a sonogram that I had excess fluid on my heart and very shallow blood pressure. He immediately began treating me with medication.
The next morning, after undergoing a barrage of more medical tests, I was advised that the two heart attacks that I endured (one while I was in transit via ambulance to the hospital and another after I arrived at the hospital) damaged “the front” of my heart. Dr. Peters prescribed higher dosages of medication to abate the fluid and concurrently changed me to a different regimen of blood thinners and beta-blockers, which are administered to “thin and purify” blood flowing through the heart and to regulate blood pressure. For the next 11 days, I stayed in the hospital’s progressive-care unit while a team of doctors, including my primary-care physician, Dr. Edward Hoffman, collaborated to regulate my blood pressure and other “peripheral” issues.
Now, as I reflect on the events that befell me Dec. 26, I rejoice that Almighty God, who brought me from death to life, preordained everything that happened that day, thus once again calling me from death to life. As events unfolded that day, every step that I took along the way was charted for me. Not being able to pull over when I became overwrought with pain and fear was part of his plan, as were the angels he sent to my side to help me: Natalie Simmons, the young store clerk who, despite my disheveled appearance, immediately called 911 to send help; the young man, whose name I’ve not been able to find out but who was a good Samaritan, staying with me and trying to calm me amid my storm; EMS staff — Tracy Rogers, paramedic; Bob Heffley, EMT; and Joe Fineholtz, early responder and assistant fire chief of Midway’s fire department; all the emergency-room and cardiac-lab staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital; and “Doogie Howser”, Dr. Gary Elkin, who answered God’s call with his medical training and skills and genuine dedication to the medical profession.
To each, my family and I owe a debt of sincerest gratitude that can never be repaid.
We also are grateful to the scores of friends and other family members for the love and concern shown and expressed to us via visits, meals prepared, cards, phone calls and text, e-mail and Facebook messages. The outpouring of friendship and love has been most humbling and overwhelming.
My physicians had me take some time off work during my recovery. However, I have been constantly in touch with my staff and fulfilling my obligations as clerk of courts all along.
I am extremely proud of and grateful for my staff. They have been most concerned about and supportive of me throughout my recovery and have rallied hard to ensure that there was no interruption in the quality or quantity of services the clerk’s office provides. Once again, they have proven what I already knew: They are some of the most dedicated individuals working in any clerk’s office or government agency.
As I waited on the ambulance Dec. 26, I prayed and even cried out numerous times, “Help me, Lord, please help me.” He answered my prayers, although I must confess that, at the time, I was not sure that my prayers and his will for me were the same.
He has brought me again to life. I’m not sure why. However, I plan to keep my promise to him and Janelle by not squandering from here on one moment of the new life I have been given.
Wilkes is the Liberty County clerk of superior court and administrator for the county’s state, juvenile and magistrate courts.