As someone who’s had two heart attacks, the potential for another is on local musician George Smith’s mind every time he takes the stage – and on his lips.
“My wife said, ‘George, you should tell everyone where your nitro is,'” Smith said of the advice he heeded to tell the public that sublingual nitroglycerin tablets were in his pocket, which could prove invaluable in such an emergency.
“It would probably never happen,” he said of complete strangers frantically administering this drug used to treat cardiac episodes by relaxing blood vessels so the heart doesn’t have to work as hard while still requiring less oxygen.
Smith, who lives in Lowgap, agrees that such an announcement could save his life – or that of someone else in the same scenario thanks to the awareness donation.
“I think I used it as a way to help other people who might have the same problem,” he said of incorporating nitro’s advice into his shows. The underlying message is that, with time being of the essence in such a crisis, people should not hesitate to step in “if you see someone falling apart”.
As a 43-year-old man who had his first heart attack at 35 and his most recent on July 12, George Smith has learned to live with the possibility. While others might have chosen to avoid any type of stress, including giving it their all during concerts, Smith vowed to keep performing – to pursue her passion.
“I love playing so much,” he explained. “It’s just a big part of who I am – I sort of lose myself when I play.”
Immediately after undergoing various medical procedures over the years, the musician claims that his physical condition has always improved as a result.
“I also feel a lot better now than I have in a long time,” he said of the aftermath of the heart attack in July.
“The challenge is to do as much as you can without overdoing it,” added Smith, who also needs to be aware of dietary and other restrictions.
“I have to remember to take things easy.”
Many people know George Smith as the leader of a band known as MAUI – the Mount Airy Ukulele Invasion – a unique rock band class he created which included students aged 5 to 85 years old.
More than 50 ukulele players occasionally perform at concerts and special ukulele events, and Smith looks forward to MAUI recording a live album at the Reeves Theater in Elkin later this month.
“Everyone at MAUI has been really supportive,” he said of the members’ response to his condition.
Smith’s musical talents are not limited to the off-the-beaten-track instrument popularized in Hawaii.
He played mandolin opening for Ralph Stanley and bass opening for Darius Rucker and Jason Michael Carroll.
The local musician also played six-string banjo on an episode of the PBS TV show “Song of the Mountains” with the band Porch Dog Revival, as well as opening for musicians such as the Steep Canyon Rangers and Larry Keel.
As a member of the Mood Cultivation Project group, he did this for Lynyrd Skynyrd at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem. Mood Cultivation Project was also the warm-up act for bands such as The Marshall Tucker Band and Goose Creek Symphony.
Smith also used his musical talents to fill in for different bands when needed while writing his own material.
“Now it’s either I’m a bandleader or a mercenary – I like to do both,” he said of gigs that mainly featured bass – although Smith dabbled in a bit of all.
“Of course, I also teach and tune pianos,” he said of a multifaceted career as an “independent musician.”
Smith is a longtime instructor at Olde Mill Music in Mount Airy, a family business run by Jennie Lowry and her husband Rick.
“He’s very well-liked and regarded in this community,” Lowry said.
Surface of heart disorders
The veteran musician grew up in the community of Beulah, attending White Plains Elementary, Gentry Middle and North Surry High schools. During his senior year, Smith was a foreign student in Germany.
He would eventually earn a university degree in German, but his musical interests grew to dominate Smith’s career goals. He held factory jobs in the early 2000s that he juggled with band organizing activities.
Music became his main activity, especially with the closure of many local industries as a result of NAFTA.
Fate reached out to George Smith about eight years ago when he suffered his first heart attack and was diagnosed with a condition involving a major blockage of the left anterior descending artery (LAD).
“They call it the widow maker,” Smith said, which in his case was a 99% blocker. He endured multiple arterial blockages requiring the insertion of stents – small mesh tubes that hold narrowed arteries open.
Smith underwent a particular procedure in which two stents were positioned together to form one “because I have an extra-large heart.”
Various treatments over the years led to his latest heart attack last month and further medical uncertainties.
“I’m on my way to my cardiologist appointment right now,” Smith said when contacted last week.
“In two weeks, I’ll be back for another cardiac catheterization,” he added of a procedure in which a thin, flexible tube, or catheter, is guided through a blood vessel to the heart to treat clogged arteries.
If that catheterization fails, Smith will face heart bypass surgery, in which blood vessels are taken from another part of his body to bypass a blocked artery.
Career could be cut short
“I know I missed a bit of work because of it,” Smith said of how her heart condition has affected performance schedules – which have also been hampered by COVID-19.
And even if the upcoming catheterization goes perfectly, he still faces the prospect of that.
In the past, Smith has traveled to places like New York for concert dates. Efforts are now being made to keep destinations within 16 hours round trip, such as Virginia Beach or northern West Virginia, to spend as much time as possible with his wife Gin and 6-year-old son, Dorian.
At one point, Smith didn’t have health insurance, but he does now, with the loss of income looming over him in the future.
The local musician, who says he has always tried to be self-reliant, did not bring up the topic of possible public donations in an interview, only discussing it after being asked how other could help.
“You don’t want to ask anything,” Smith said proudly. “I was always taught to work for what I have.”
He received a few dollars here and there from friends, which the performer said was “extremely wonderful” and difficult to fully express in words.
And while Smith didn’t want to ask anyone for help, he acknowledged that at this point “it would definitely help.”
People can do this electronically through two popular online payment systems, Venmo and PayPal.
Respective account access information includes Venmo:@themusicofgeorgesmith and PayPal, [email protected]
Those without internet access can donate to Olde Mill Music.
“If I get something, I will definitely pay for it in the future,” Smith promised. “If people want to help, that would be appreciated.”
No matter what the future holds, George Smith is “grateful” right now.
“I’m so grateful for the life I once had,” he said.
And looking to the future, “I hope to be here much longer,” observed Smith. “But I still do much better than the majority of the world in the grand scheme of things.”