NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

A Little Christmas Miracle

16 Dec 2022
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor


Now that all the drama has died down and the worry beads have mostly been put away, I'd like to share my little Christmas miracle with you.

Over the last 15 years in this column, I've had the honor of eulogizing a lot of drag racers who have died — legends, heroes, friends of mine … sometimes all three — but recently I almost became the person that needed to be written about.

On Dec. 1, I underwent emergency double bypass open-heart surgery to clear some blocked arteries that were obstructing 99% of the blood flow to my heart. Honestly, I'm lucky to be here. But I’m back at home and on the mend, and expecting a full recovery and a date with the Gainesville pits in March.

As I lay on the gurney looking up at the lights in the operating room, listening to the hustle and bustle of the surgery team as they prepared to carve me like a post-Thanksgiving turkey, I didn't have to ponder that famous question from that 1970s Funny Car commercial asking, “What in the hell am I doing here?”

I knew what I was doing there. This was the long overdue bill for decades of eating like a teenager — all of those double cheeseburgers, corn dogs, nachos, chili cheese fries, pizza, and fast-food dinners with the grandkids. It was Ding Dongs and Diet Cokes for breakfast and hustle and bustle of life on the road. It's leaving the track at midnight praying for an open burger joint and eating in your hotel room.

I always knew I faced a little of an uphill road with heart health. My father died in his early 30s of heart disease. He was a smoker and overtaxing in training to return to amateur soccer, so, as a never-smoker, I always kind of put an asterisk on that one. Then my mother (still very much alive!) developed some heart troubles in her early 80s and warned me that our family genetics on this weren't very favorable. Nonetheless, I continued to eat things I probably shouldn't have, thinking that it would never catch up to me and, honestly, enjoying every gluttonous moment in between.

It all did begin to catch up with me in late September. I remember it perfectly. I was in the Phoenix airport walking between gates for my connecting flight to Charlotte when I felt a burning on the far left side of my chest. I’d had a Diet Coke for breakfast, so I wrote it off as heartburn and went on and worked the race with no problem, but over the following weeks, it kept cropping up.

It wasn’t a pain like you think about for a heart attack, where it’s pressing heavily on your chest, and had no other side effects that normally are associated with a heart attack, but it wouldn't fully go away. I rationalized that it was everything but a heart issue. I tried antacids, probiotics, changes in diet, and other things, but eventually the handwriting became a little clearer. I'd find myself out of breath doing yard work and the Las Vegas and Pomona races were a bit of a struggle just to walk the pits.

The rods were knocking. If I had a crew chief, he’d have pushed the remote shutoff.

My oldest daughter, who’s an RN, found a cardiologist, and I went in for tests. He put me on his version of a dyno — a six-minute treadmill test — while hooked up to an electrocardiogram. The results were plain there to see: I had a miss in my ignition system.

The cardiologist immediately directed me to have an angiogram the following morning. Luckily for me, he only does them once a week, and it was on that day, and he was available. An angiogram is where they strap you to a table and run a big old cable up a vein in your arm with a camera and a device to shoot dye into your veins, kind of like looking for a blocked hose in your fuel system. 

Going in, the cardiologist was optimistic and told me there were probably three outcomes: 1) a small blockage that could be resolved with medicine; 2) a more severe yet manageable blockage that he could fixed with a stent, pretty much a device that could be inserted to open up the arteries and help hold them open; 3) was open heart surgery.

The angiogram wasn't pleasant, nor were the results he showed me. You know how when you're looking for a leak in a tire, you hold it underwater and look for the bubbles? This was just the opposite. Where there should have been flowing movement, there was none. A dead end.

The cardiologist told me I had a 99% blockage at a crucial Y portion of my heart in an area that supplies 80% of the blood to the heart. I was just one small particle — one small piece of plaque or something — that could come off of the artery wall and jam that hole plugged. You gearheads know what that means. Maybe you've got a small jet in your fuel system and it gets plugged with a small piece of broken o-ring or sediment from a fuel jug and everything stops. And sometimes things go boom. That was almost me.

I got a lot of congratulations for “listening to my body” and going in and getting checked, but I had only been listening with one ear, the one that kept telling me everything was OK. 

Fortune smiled on me again when we found out that there was a heart surgeon who had an opening in the schedule and could take me the next morning. That’s a pretty big deal as sometimes people have to wait a week to go under the knife. In the meantime, the cardiologist inserted a balloon into my heart to help keep those arteries open so that I wouldn’t have that heart attack. I’m not gonna lie, it was scary.

I worked on my laptop best I could to push the dread from my mind. It was tough to see the concern on the faces of the members of my family. My wife and my two daughters were there by my side every day with brave faces and encouragement — if they cried or were scared (and I’m sure of both) they never let me see it, and I thank them for that — but still I hurt for what I was putting them through. 

My son, a big, strapping, emotional monolith, broke down sobbing on the phone when my youngest daughter gave him the news, and he could barely get out, “Tell him I love him” before getting choked up. Before I’d gone to the hospital, my teenage grandson had hugged me tight, his body wracked with sobs as he pled, “You have to be OK, Pa.”

I’ve always had a side of me that is protective and a disdain for letting people down. When I was playing hockey, I stood up for my smaller teammates, willing to trade blows with bigger opponents for the good of the team. I hated to miss a game because I knew it put them one man short.

Not only was I not able to be the protector now, but here it was, just weeks before Christmas with a trip planned to meet my sister and mother in Paso Robles, Calif., (guess I won’t need that list of activities after all, Doug Gordon) and all of those plans had to be canceled. There was also my other family — my National Dragster colleagues — who were in the last week of producing the final issue of the year. I’ve always been a team-first, work-first, rest-later kind of person, and through text messages, I vowed to pitch in as well as I could from a hospital bed. As a team, they came together to absorb some of my assignments and keep the train moving down the track, even minus its conductor. Thanks, guys.

The surgery, shorthanded among the medical community as “cabbage” — short for Coronary Artery Bypass Graft (CABG) — took about six hours. They sliced my breastbone open with a reciprocal saw, then cracked me open like an egg. Non-essential arteries are removed from other parts of your body — in my case, my left forearm and my chest — and used to reroute the blood flow around the blockages. As the surgeon’s assistant explained it to me beforehand, “When there’s a crash that blocks the road, we’re not the tow truck. We’re the guys who build a road around the crash.”

The surgeon, I’d later find out, had performed nearly 9,000 of these, so I basically got the Dale Armstrong of arterial blockages — the D.A. of A.B.s, I guess — and everything went well with no complications.

I woke up with enough tubes and lines in me to feed a nitro-burning Hemi: a ventilator, chest tubes, IVs, oxygen, and a catheter. The breastbone was held together inside by steel lines to promote healing and a zipper-like string of seven staples held the skin together on the outside.

They told me that a typical post-surgery stay was four to six days. I vowed to be out in three. After all, there was a magazine to finish.

True or not, I’ve always fancied myself a badass. When I broke my ankle playing hockey, I not only (foolishly, in retrospect) walked off the rink — telling everyone with a schlocky line straight out of some bad Western script, “I walked into the rink, I’m damn sure walking out, too.” — but drove myself home.

That wasn’t going to happen here, so I became the model patient, welcoming every finger-prick for blood sugar, every EGK, every x-ray, and every blood-pressure check. I ate when they told me to even when it felt like I couldn’t. When they asked me to try to walk the hallway once, I did it twice. When they asked for two laps again the next day, I gave them six. After a day, most of the tubes were removed. They told me that sitting up in a chair would be better for my recovery than lying in bed, so I sat up for hours, knowing that every second I did would help. Sixty seconds would be a minute. Sixty of those would be an hour. Twenty-four of those would be a day. Small goals.

I had my laptop and worked when I could, which made me feel good, but it was my family who proved the greater medicine. Encouragement and a showering of love and assistance revitalized me and pushed me forward. Being cooped up for three days with no fresh air and limited mobility was the worst, but they helped make it tolerable.

I got calls or texts from NHRA’s upper management, from Glen Cromwell on down the line, wishing me well. Our HR department was amazing, helping me navigate the healthcare benefits program.

The cardiologist and surgeon visited every day and were pleased with my progress and vital signs, and, sure enough, I got out in three days. I had walked in, but hospital policy required a wheelchair exit. From a Wednesday morning angiogram to a Thursday surgery and here it was, Sunday evening, and I was sprung. Modern medicine at its best.

I got sent home with a whole set of directives on what I could and couldn’t do and enough medication to stock a pharmacy. A new diet is on the list, too, to make sure I never end up back there again, and I’m told that, in moderation and with an otherwise balanced diet, nothing is off the table for an occasional treat, so I’m looking forward to an In-N-Out Double Double.

I felt well enough Monday to finish writing the remaining articles on my assignment list and participated fully in the completion of the magazine. That felt really good, but, as you can imagine, it was tiring. My days are still that way; I get up, work for an hour or so, then take a breather before going back at it again.

I wrote this column for a number of reasons, none of which is to hypocritically preach that you eat better (but I hope you do). I kept this whole thing on the down-low to avoid the attention and the worry of the many people in my universe, but now that things are looking good, here it is. I wanted to explain my recent absence from this column to the Insider Nation and tell you that I hope to be back at it here early next year.

I’m blessed to be supported by family and friends who are there to keep me encouraged even through the expected minor setbacks. My plan is to return to the office in January and not miss the Gatornationals in March.

I thought a lot about all of the people I’d known and lost who had heart issues. My dear friend Leslie Lovett, who had been on a fishing trip when he suffered a fatal heart attack. National Dragster clown prince Bill Crites. The dear ol’ Mongoose, Tom McEwen. So many others. Just this year I eulogized Danny Ongais and Bill Schultz, both of who passed due to heart issues. It all hit close to home.

So much went so right for me to end up sitting here typing this to share with all of you. When I think about having a massive heart attack on an airplane or in the car driving to work or even laying in bed, the picture’s not pretty. It’s my little Christmas miracle to my family and friends, and to myself, pulled off by incredible doctors and nurses and modern medicine.

I’ll be back, hopefully stronger than ever, to continue this incredible life’s work with which I was blessed. Thanks in advance for your well-wishes and support. I’ll see you in 2023.

Phil Burgess can be reached at pburgess@nhra.com

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