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Prioritizing child weakens father

Profile image for By Christian McPhate
By Christian McPhate

Mike “Roadrunner” Smith of the Iron Guardians had two choices: buy the heart medicine he needed to stay alive or pay for his 9-year-old son’s monthly medication.

Smith knew his heart medication was needed to keep the blockage in his arteries at the 50 percent level, but he’d recently lost his job and his insurance, and he couldn’t afford to pay both the $1,000 a month for his medication and the $300 a month for his son’s.

But it wasn’t really a choice, as any father knows. A father’s job is to protect his child no matter the cost, and Smith has always been a protector. It’s the reason he started the Iron Guardians motorcycle club: to protect at-risk youths from the lure of drugs and the criminal life.

Now, Smith is dying, and his loved ones have set up the “Mike Smith Family Fund” at giveforward.com to help him and his family as he waits for the Social Security Administration to approve him for disability checks, a process that takes several months.

“They say the first time anybody applies for disability, they’re turned down,” Smith said. “But I’ve also been told since my situation is not correctable, that there’s a possibility that it will go through the first time.”

Smith looks like a banker when he’s not wearing the Iron Guardian’s cut and riding his Harley. He isn’t a large man, but his passion for helping children and his brothers in the motorcycle club makes him seem like he’s three times his size.

Smith’s first heart attack occurred in December 2011. He had no idea what was happening to him. It was 11:30 p.m. on a Sunday when his wife, Jennifer, asked him why he was breathing so hard.

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“I can’t catch my breath,” he replied.

All of a sudden a horrid throbbing pain erupted in his left arm and then his right one. He sat up in bed and looked at his wife.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I don’t know, but something is not right,” he said.

Smith, who’s in his early 50s, didn’t want his wife upset because her father had died of a heart attack in his 50s. So he climbed out of bed, slipped on his jeans, tennis shoes and T-shirt and told his wife he was headed to the hospital in Denton.

“Wait, let me get my clothes on,” she said, “and I’ll take you.”

“Naw, I’ll be fine,” he said.

Smith fired up his pickup and headed toward Denton Regional Medical Center, which was about eight minutes from their house in Justin. By the time he reached the Bill Utter Ford dealership, the pain was so intense that he couldn’t hold the steering wheel, so he drove the rest of the way with his knees guiding the truck.

Inside the hospital, Smith was doubled over in pain and couldn’t breath. A lady looked at him and asked, “You’re having a heart attack, aren’t you?”

“I don’t know,” he replied, “but something’s not right.”

The nurses rushed him into the emergency room.

“The best description I can say,” Smith recalled later, “is it was like I stepped into a pit of fire.”

Emergency room personnel were running in every direction, hooking him up to machines and inserting an IV. His wife tried to text him, but he couldn’t reply. One of the nurses called her back and told her that her husband was having a heart attack.

Smith looked up at another nurse. “I’m having a heart attack?” he asked.

“Sir, you’re having multiple heart attacks,” she answered. “But don’t you worry. You’re at the absolute best place you can be.”

“Well, do me a favor,” he said. “Don’t let me die until my wife gets here.”

The nurse reached down and held his hand until the doctors told her it was time for her to leave.

Jennifer Smith along with his Iron Guardian brothers arrived and stayed with him while he was in the intensive care unit. Smith had a 100 percent blockage in the artery that doctors call “the widow maker.”

“You’re not supposed to feel anything,” Smith said. “It’s supposed to just kill you. I was lucky or blessed.”

The doctors put a stint in his heart, but a few months later, Smith suffered another heart attack and had to have quadruple bypass surgery.

In June 2012, Smith was taking about 10 medications when he and his wife lost their jobs and insurance while he was recovering from his bypass surgery. He couldn’t afford to pay for the medications that he and his son needed, including the Plavix, which doctors told him not to stop taking.

“It was outrageously expensive,” Jennifer Smith said.

Mike Smith decided to pay for his son’s medication instead of his own.

Smith and his wife became self-employed but still couldn’t afford insurance. Like many families in North Texas, they barely earned enough money to survive each month but made too much for Medicaid.

In February of this year, Jennifer Smith was able to land a job that offered insurance, but she didn’t become eligible for benefits until July.

Mike Smith went to the doctor who immediately ordered several tests to determine the condition of his heart.

On Oct. 7, Smith learned that two of his four grafts from the bypass surgery had failed, and his heart had five blockages, one artery on the left side was 85 percent to 90 percent blocked, and one on the right side had reached 95 percent blockage.

The cardiologist told him that he couldn’t put another stint in Smith’s heart and another bypass wasn’t an option, but he did prescribe a medication that would increase the vitality of the arteries and hopefully enlarge some of them.

Smith didn’t understand all the lingo the cardiologist was speaking, so he made an appointment with his family doctor.

“Look, I just need somebody to talk to me man to man,” Smith told him. “What are my options? Are they telling me I’m going to die?”

“Mr. Smith, I’m not God,” his family doctor said. “I can’t tell you when you’re going to die. You might get hit by a Mack truck when you walk out of my office. But you went from 50 percent blockage to 85 to 90 percent in two years. If I were you, if there’s anything you need to get done, you need to do it now.”

Smith told his wife — who didn’t take it well — and then he went to talk to his now 11-year-old son, Drew.

“Are you going to die?” Drew asked.

“Son, I can take you to the graveyard,” Smith said, “and there are all kinds of graves out there. Nobody knows when they’re going to die, and you should be ready. You should do everything you can to prepare for that day because you don’t know when it’s going to be.”

“Dad, but are you going to die?,” Drew asked.

“Yeah, Drew, I’m going to die. We don’t know when ...,” Smith said

“But I’m talking about now,” Drew said.

“I can’t answer that,” Smith replied. “I don’t know. All I can tell you is that when God is ready for me, I’m going to die.”

Both of them cried, and Smith kissed his son goodnight and went to bed, but his son continued to cry.

The next morning, Smith took his son to school. Drew walked toward the building and looked back at his father.

“Dad, I love you,” he said.

“I love you, too,” Smith said.

Drew moved closer to the doors of his school, turned to look at his father and asked, “Are you going to be alive when I get home?”

“Yes, son,” he said.

Smith’s wife later told him that it wasn’t fair that he was going to die, that he was “a walking time bomb,” but he answered in his casual way and told her it was fair because everyone is a walking time bomb.

“But I don’t walk out the door thinking that I’m going to die,” Jennifer Smith said. “And I’m afraid I’m going to walk in and he’ll be dead.”

“As crazy as this sounds, I feel like I’m blessed,” Mike Smith said. “I know that time is really short, so it completely changes how I look at life. Things that used to irritate me or I used to think I need to take care of, now I realize that I don’t need to worry about them.”

Smith plans to be buried in Beaumont, right beside his mother and father.

“My wife is 41 years old, so she needs to get on with her life,” he said. “My son is 11, and he’s going to need a father. I want them to get on with their life.”

Smith said the Iron Guardians will continue to function after he dies. The vice president will become president, and they’ll hold elections for a new vice president.

“Whenever his day comes, we’re going to escort him back to Beaumont,” said the national vice president of the Iron Guardians who goes by his road name of Rocc.

And while his loved ones have set up a fund to help his family, Smith has been busy contacting people from his past.

“I tried to reach out to everyone in my past that I’d done wrong and tell them I’m sorry,” Smith said.

The family doctor told Smith that he could still ride his motorcycle when the weather is agreeable and, basically, do whatever he feels like doing.

“I can’t get over it [the heart condition],” Smith said. “It’s not like I can change my outcome.”

To donate to the Mike Smith Family Fund, visit www.giveforward.com and enter “Mike Smith Family Fund” in the search bar.

CHRISTIAN McPHATE can be reached at 940-566-6878 and via Twitter at @writerontheedge.