Wiedmer: McCallie coach Mike Wood's rally from near death is best story of prep track season

Staff file photo by C.B. Schmelter / McCallie cross country and track and field coach Mike Wood
photo Staff file photo by C.B. Schmelter / Mike Wood coached McCallie's cross country team to the TSSAA Division II-AA state title in early November 2019, but in late December he found himself fighting for his life as he recovered from a cardiac arrest that was the result of a total blockage of his left anterior descending artery.

At least McCallie School cross country and track and field coach Mike Wood was already sitting in the Memorial Hospital waiting room last Dec. 29 when that last bit of plaque forced a 100% blockage of his left anterior descending artery.

There's a reason why that artery is known as "The Widowmaker," and had Wood not already been inside Memorial, his wife Paula might well have lost her husband of 40 years.

Or as fellow McCallie coach and longtime friend Rodney Stoker noted Thursday: "Had Mike been back at their home in Belk Hall instead of at the hospital when he had his cardiac arrest, he probably wouldn't be here today."

Not that Wood really wants to be in the Scenic City this week. He would have preferred to be with the Blue Tornado track team in Murfreesboro, participating in the state meet at the Spring Fling against the rest of McCallie's TSSAA Division II-AA brothers.

But the coronavirus pandemic canceled that competition, so all Wood can do in the Fling's absence is to continue to grow stronger as he fights to fully recover from his seismic brush with death nearly five months ago.

"One doctor later told me I was a one-percenter," Wood said earlier this week. "He said that's what percent of patients might survive what happened to me. The thing is, I don't remember much of any of it. I just know what other people have told me."

What he does remember is waking up the morning of Dec. 29 feeling uncomfortable.

"Paula and I went to church, and I experienced some chest pains," Wood said. "Someone said I should go to the emergency room. Instead, we went to lunch. Then the chest pains came back, and my doctor, Dr. Jack McCallie, told me to go the emergency room. That time I did."

After three hours in the waiting room, the 64-year-old Wood collapsed. His heart would later stop for more than seven minutes. His kidneys eventually shut down. He wound up being airlifted by helicopter to St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville, where he would remain in the intensive care unit for more than four weeks.

"I get emotional just thinking about it," fellow McCallie coach Duke Richey said. "Mike was on a ventilator for a month. You'd walk down the cardiac wing of that hospital and know it was full of people who probably weren't going to make it. It was so awful."

Added Stoker: "We were going back and forth to Nashville to see him, and after that first week you'd think, 'We're going to have to figure this out without him (because he's not going to make it).' I guess his heart had a little spark left in it after all."

This is how much spark: Upon being released from St. Thomas in the final days of January, Wood was supposed to spend three to four weeks rehabbing at Kindred Hospital here in Chattanooga before returning home. Instead, he was home in eight days.

Said Richey on Wednesday: "It's amazing to see him now. He's walking three or four miles a day. Doctors have told him they've never seen anybody recover this quickly. But when we left that hospital, I told my wife (Sarah), 'He's got a runner's heart. He's still a fighter, and if anybody can beat that and survive it's him, because he knows how to fight through something that is painful.'"

A nurse told Wood almost the exact same thing, but he now believes his unusually swift recovery is due to the exact opposite reason.

"I think it was total submission," he said. "I had to become totally dependent on the Lord and trust the people he'd brought into my life."

Wood even told a doctor he believed the prayers of as many as 25,000 over the internet played a huge role in his survival.

"We can't quantify that," the doctor replied.

Countered Wood, "I'm here, aren't I?"

The impacts of his near death and recovery are spreading fast.

"I'm eating no dairy now," Richey said.

"Our track and cross country teams have always celebrated after every meet or competition by going to Waffle House," Stoker said. "I think all our kids have Waffle House sweatshirts and socks. No more Waffle House for Mike. He's a changed guy."

Added Wood: "No bacon and sausage. I'm eating lots of good soups now that Paula cooks. I'm not on a strict diet, just trying to be smart."

Not that food is his only change.

"There's a greater appreciation for my family and my life," Wood said. "For Paula, for our daughter Margaret and son Grey. For McCallie, everyone from my friends on the faculty to our students to the HR folks. I used to slip the insurance packet into the bottom drawer of my desk and think I'd never need that. But I'm so lucky to have it. In fact, on the day I got out of ICU, I got a note that my insurance had approved a heart transplant for me. Fortunately, I didn't need it."

He instead needs a few tips on how to catch more fish than retiring Baylor headmaster Scott Wilson, who lives in the same development on the back of Lookout Mountain as Wood and who has whipped him a couple of times in their two-man fishing competitions.

"It's silly, but I hate to lose to Baylor in anything," Wood said with a chuckle.

Losing a chance to compete for a state track and field title to match the cross country crown McCallie won in the fall is no laughing matter to Wood, however.

"This is the first time in 48 years (as a participant or coach) that I won't be attending a track meet," he said. "And track and field is so unique. You're out there all by yourself in a skimpy little uniform. I just love that pressure. You see kids step up and do things they haven't done all season."

Of course, thanks to Wood, the McCallie School family and so many others have gotten to watch their friend step up and recover from something that kills 99% of those it attacks.

Said Stoker of so rare a feat: "They just don't make 'em like Mike Wood."

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.