I am going to try to tell the story of how I was able to make it back on the mountain after dying on the operating table two years prior. When I was 21, I was diagnosed with Bacterial Endocarditis and had to get an aortic heart valve replacement. I was trying to get my valve replaced again when I was 43, and it did not go well. I was flatlined on the table for 30 minutes. My surgical team did compressions and got me back, but I had had a major stroke and was put in an induced coma to try to let my heart and brain recover. For a few days, I was the sickest person in this large hospital. My family was not sure I would make it. They told my wife that if I did pull through, I may not walk again. I was in bad shape, but I had a strong community of people praying for me in Greensboro, North Carolina and all other parts of the country.
My body started fighting to survive and heal. I was in really good shape when I went into this surgery and that helped me, no doubt. After 10 days, they started to take me out of the induced coma. I started to respond and move muscles they were not sure I would be able to move. I was then flown to Atlanta, Georgia to the Shepard Center to try to recover from this traumatic event. While there, I had to learn how to swallow and walk again. I progressed quickly, walking using a rail for support and then on my own. I was jogging around the basketball court before checking out in 28 days. They may have been just making me feel good, but they said they had never seen anyone progress that quickly. It was due to the shape I was in before the event happened, my prayer warriors, and a positive attitude. Shepard Center is a first-class facility that specializes in rehabilitation after an event like this. I would not have been back on the mountain so quickly had it not been for their help.
While I was still in Atlanta, I learned that although I was feeling and doing so much better, I would require another open-heart surgery to replace my valve. Two months later, I received a mechanical heart valve at the Cleveland Clinic. This time, there were no issues with surgery and I walked out of there six days later. Another first-class facility I cannot say enough good things about.
Fast forward two years to August 2021. It was finally time for the sheep hunt I had signed up for six years ago with Blair and Rebecca Miller of Stone and Folding Mountain Outfitters. We were supposed to go last summer, but Covid would not let it happen. It was a good thing for me because I needed more time to recover and train. I was only walking and jogging downhill at first. Then I moved to walking and jogging uphill and down. Then to jogging only. I got to being able to run upwards of five to six miles before the hunt and working some boot camps into my weekly routine.
I want to tell this story to encourage other hunters with heart conditions. With proper training and planning, you can do physically demanding hunts. One of my biggest concerns was the blood thinners I am on for my mechanical valve. I had to try to emulate my diet at home by taking the right dose of Vitamin K, which is in green, leafy vegetables, which are not on the mountain! I got a tablet for K with 100 micrograms, which is about the same amount that would be in a kale or spinach salad. This worked! When I got home and was able to get my blood checked (INR), it was spot on. I tried to be really careful while on horseback and climbing down the mountain. The worst thing for someone on blood thinners is a head injury or bad laceration. Pill boxes make it easier to lay all the required medications, and I was sure to bring extra blood thinner in case I got stuck in a camp for longer than planned. I also brought pills that would thicken my blood in case I did get a bad laceration.
I communicated to the outfitter and guide my condition and what to do if I had an accident and was unconscious. Very important. Blair put me with a very experienced guide, Bert Robidoux, and we hunted hard for three days before taking a break to dry out.
It was the fifth afternoon of the hunt when we first saw some legal rams. They were in a large band, which had several legal rams in it. We tried to put a stalk on them, but it was getting too late. We decided to back off and go back to camp to not risk spooking them, hoping they would still be in the same spot the next morning. We got up early to make the climb again, praying they would still be there. They were! Bert made the right call. We made the final stalk on them, and when we got to the spot where they were just a short time ago, they had disappeared in what seemed like thin air. We stopped, thoroughly frustrated and deflated, right where they had been bedded down. We could see sign all over the place. Had they spooked or gone to another position? Had they gone down to get water? We took a break, closed our eyes, and rested. Maybe they would come back up. Bert made another great call. By just staying there and not panicking and running all over the mountain, they did come back up. It appeared they went down for something, maybe to drink, and then came back up. A legal ram stopped and bedded down below us at 200 yards. I didn’t wait to see if more were going to come back up. This was the best opportunity I had in six days of hard hunting, and I wasn’t going to waste it. I shot him bedded down and then got another follow-up shot in him when he stood up. He went straight back down after that.
Bert and I couldn’t believe the change of emotions we had just been through, from being totally deflated to hugging and high fiving! We got down to the sheep where I said a prayer and thanked God for the sheep and for the time I got to spend with Bert on the mountain getting to know him. We packed the sheep out and came back down the mountain heavy and happy.
It’s hard to put into words how rewarding this was for me after what I went through two years ago. If you get through a sheep hunt, you feel like you can do just about anything. I can’t wait to get back in sheep country as soon as possible!