It’s probably safe to say that Sunday, December 29 simply wasn’t the day for Mike Wood’s life to end.
But he had a life-changing experience that day with cardiac arrest that would have killed most others facing similar circumstances.
Miraculously, the 64-year-old McCallie Director of Summer programs and the head coach for cross country and track is well on his way to a complete recovery and is feeling better today than ever before.
My sports writing career at the News-Free Press began in the fall of 1979. Wood completed his undergraduate degree at Bryan College the year before and started his teaching and coaching career at Rhea County High School.
When I got my first beat covering high school cross country, Mike Wood was one of the first people I became friends with. He moved on to UTC from 1984-88 and has been at McCallie ever since.
I’ve never known a guy who took better care of himself physically, stayed in shape, never smoked or drank and used running as a way to stay slim and trim.
His story sort of reminds me of the late, great Jim Fixx, an outstanding runner who died at the age of 52 after suffering a fatal heart attack. We all know that heart disease will kill the youngest and strongest, no matter what kind of shape they’re in.
It’s one thing to live a smart lifestyle, but it’s something totally different when genetics are involved. Mike’s father had problems with high cholesterol, but Mike never gave such a thing a second thought.
He’s been more healthy than a horse and admitted earlier this week that he hadn’t been to see a doctor in more than 30 years, but all of that changed two days before New Year’s.
It had been a wonderful fall for Mike and his wife Paula.
The McCallie cross country team won its sixth state title in Wood’s tenure as the Blue Tornado head man. Their youngest child Grey had just graduated from Samford and they had just closed on a beautiful house in a gated community on the back side of Lookout Mountain.
Grey was home for Christmas while older daughter Margaret and her husband Edward were in the Bahamas with his family. Life was going just fine until everything changed four days after Christmas.
Mike hadn’t slept well on Saturday, but was up early on Sunday to attend church. A friend suggested a trip to the ER after he admitted having chest pains, but they went out to eat instead. Mike was still feeling less than 100 percent, thinking he was having a severe case of indigestion. He called his friend Dr. Jack McCallie, who suggested that he go straight to the emergency room.
They headed to Memorial and he had an EKG. While waiting in the ER for additional tests, Mike simply keeled over. Suffering from cardiac arrest where the main left artery was completely blocked, Mike’s heart stopped completely for the next seven minutes.
Ironically, Dr. Whit Dowlen was on duty at the time and he’s the one who got Mike’s heart restarted. Dowlen had once been a pole vaulter at McCallie and was quite surprised to see his old coach in such a terrible condition.
The decision was quickly made to transfer Mike to St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville where they specialize in heart transplants, but a stint was inserted before he was airlifted to Nashville. The next few days were really touch and go as he was facing a 50-50 chance at best of even surviving. Luckily, Mike was in a coma and on a ventilator, so he wasn’t aware of anything.
Heart doctors in Nashville later shared with him that he had less than one percent of surviving at all and that chances were great he’d suffer life-long consequences like brain damage, possible leg amputation or other things equally as bad. Now, those same doctors are referring to Mike as the Miracle Man for recovering so well.
Before further action was taken on the transplant, Mike’s heart improved greatly and the transplant issue was removed.
Now almost five months later, Wood is relaxing in his newly-acquired home in the woods on a private lake where he can do his walking and continue to recover.
Wood now sports a beard that is more gray than brown, but he’s feeling better now than he has in many months and is simply thankful to have another chance at life.
“I knew that I had gotten in terrible shape physically, but I never had a clue about my arteries being totally blocked. We got involved in Caring Bridge, a website where friends and family members can update daily and that’s where literally thousands of folks around the world found out about my situation.
“I literally had thousands of people praying for me and I’m totally convinced that was a major reason for my quick recovery. I feel like the Lord still has something else for me to do,” Wood said as a fish broke water over his left shoulder.
“So many miraculous things have happened since then. Margaret and Edward had been living in New York City for the past three years, but they have since decided to move closer and just this week moved back to Nashville. I don’t remember anything during that time in Nashville and that’s probably good.
“I came back to Chattanooga to do my rehab at Kindred Hospital, thinking I’d be there three or four weeks. I was out of there and back home in just over a week. I was finally able to take a shower by myself, which was really a lot of work and I remember how tough it was to climb just four steps. It felt like a major hill workout,” he laughed.
“I was planning to go back to work on April 1, but that was before all the Corona virus stuff hit and cancelled everything. I normally work with hurdlers and pole vaulters and I knew it would be tough to be there the whole time, but I was planning to be there at the start.
“I have great assistant coaches in John McCall, Rodney Stoker and Duke Richey. They’ve made my job so much easier. The support I got from folks at McCallie has simply been amazing and really encouraging to me and my family.
“My main rehab these days is walking. I walked for two hours this morning and I’ll probably do another hour later this afternoon, but I’m eating better. The best news is that they can treat my situation with medication. I’ve never had to take pills before, but I’m taking about eight a day right now. If that’s what it takes, I’m willing to do whatever they suggest. And as of right now, there is no need for any kind of bypass surgery,” Wood smiled.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this entire story is his connection with J.R. Davis, a fellow who was Mike’s roommate their last year at Bryan. Davis lives in Nashville and is very much involved in prison ministry and work with homeless men.
When Davis shared with Mike that at least 20 men on death row in Nashville were praying for him and his recovery, Wood felt really good about his chances.
Mike and Paula celebrated their 40th anniversary on Dec. 22, the week before all of this craziness took place. She was by his side the entire time and her life too has been greatly changed by all of the events of the past five months.
“It was miraculous in so many ways as Mike was facing so many life-threatening crisis from the start. It’s amazing to me the number of people who stepped up to help in any way they could. It’s quite overwhelming the support we got, but we all found out just how strong the power of prayer really is.
“It was a stressful time for us all, but I’m so thankful at how well Mike has recovered. And I’m so glad that Margaret and Edward are living in Nashville now,” Paula added.
Currently, Mike and Paula will move back to the McCallie campus on June 15 where they are dorm parents at Belk Hall. Sports camps are scheduled to begin on June 22. Mike is already looking forward to cross country starting later in the summer.
“We graduated a great group of seniors, but we still have an outstanding group coming back. We’ve had great success with cross country in my time here with six state titles, but we’ve never won one in track. We’ve been runner-up eight or nine times, but never got the big trophy,” Wood concluded with a smile.
I’m so thankful that this story has a happy ending. I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to visit with him for a couple of hours earlier this week.
We are reminded on a daily basis that life is fragile and very temporary. What might be fine one minute might not be fine the next.
There’s no doubt that Mike Wood has a new outlook on life. Being able to wake up each day and to do basic things we all take for granted is a real blessing for him.
He's come a long way in these past five months.
Mike Wood really is a Miracle Man and he will be the first to tell you that.
(Email John Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org)