His heart's still in it

Marc Kovac

John O’Grady had a story to tell.

"It’s a very short story," he said, prompting laughter from Pam, his wife of nearly 24 years, who was standing in the kitchen nearby.

O'Grady has plenty of stories. There are tales of political grudges now mended, ugly election campaigns against Republicans and battles with his fellow Democrats. Familiar names are dropped, as is the occasional expletive for emphasis.

There are many stories. But they're never short.

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On this morning, after tucking his shirt, quieting his dog and sitting down at the kitchen table of his longtime home on the West Side, O’Grady’s thoughts turned to matters of the heart.

The "very short story" involved a recurring nightmare: O’Grady is being chased by a giant, unseen heart. The loud thumping gets closer and closer until he wakes in a panic, just before being caught.

He had the dream for years, throughout childhood and as a young adult. Then early one morning two decades ago in a motel in Tennessee, the heartbeats stopped.

Twenty years ago this month, O’Grady suffered a massive aortic dissection, splitting the major blood vessel all the way to his legs and sending him into emergency open-heart surgery and a month in a coma.

He wasn't expected to live. The doctors had called his wife and two kids at the time into the room to say their final goodbyes. There were whispers back home that O’Grady had died.

Those rumors were exaggerated.

O'Grady told his wife before that first surgery that he'd be OK, Pam O'Grady said. "He's a fighter."

Today, O’Grady, 55, is a Franklin County commissioner who is heavily involved in the Democratic Party and family life. He has learned to juggle the medical demands that come with being a heart patient and the stress and responsibilities of elected office.

"When I woke up out of a coma in 1999, I couldn’t imagine living a few more months, let alone a few more years," he said. "I never would have imagined I would be here 20 years later. Now, I expect to be here 20 years from now. Probably 30 more."

Staying in rhythm

O’Grady, his wife and three of their four children had to be out of the door by about 8 a.m., all headed in different directions.

For O’Grady, that meant dropping off his youngest, 11-year-old Erin, at her day camp, then getting himself to the county administration building Downtown for the commissioners' weekly briefing meeting. Before all of that, he had to get his medications in order.

Once a week, O’Grady gathers his prescriptions and vitamins and over-the-counter pills and separates them into plastic organizers. He downs more than 20 pills a day, including 11 prescriptions.

He’s taken various medications through the years, working with his doctors to find the right combination to deal with his chronic atrial fibrillation.

His first open-heart surgery in August 1999 lasted about 16 hours, with complications from a previously undiagnosed connective tissue disease.

Five months later, he had surgery on his right arm, which was damaged by a lack of blood circulation. As a result, he no longer has a bicep, his shoulder is prone to slip out of its socket, and sometimes he drops plates because of a lack of feeling in his hand and fingers.

O’Grady had a second open-heart surgery in 2007 to replace the homograft — a dead man’s heart valve that replaced his own eight years earlier — with a mechanical valve.

O’Grady has had 17 cardiothoracic surgeries since 1999. He still has a tear in his descending aorta that likely will require invasive surgery at some point.

The operations have left him with a pacemaker and defibrillator implanted on the right side of his chest, a titanium plate across his sternum and a synthetic wrap around his aorta.

The medicines he takes daily help keep his circulation and other systems working properly. One powerful pill in particular ensures his heart is in rhythm. Missing a dose could send him into full-blown a-fib, requiring a trip to the doctor and an electric shock.

He’s had 22 such cardioversions in the past decade to restore normal heart rhythm, but none in the past eight months.

In his prime, O’Grady was a 6-foot-2, 220-pound athlete who played football and baseball and wrestled throughout high school. He was a walk-on wrestler while attending Ohio State University. As a young adult, he played softball and remained active.

He can no longer do the same types of aerobic activities, though he does walk and occasionally bike. He still golfs, though not as often as he would like.

Tossing a football hurts, but he can play catcher for his softball-pitching daughters (as long as he doesn’t have to throw past the mound). He also regularly lugs coolers and chairs and other stuff to watch Erin’s softball tournaments.

Sometimes, he might miss a breath, but he said he usually doesn’t feel winded.

"I don’t wake up every day and go, ‘I’m a heart patient,’" he said. "I don’t wake up every day and think that this stuff rules my life. It is who I am, but I feel great. I don’t concern myself with it. It’s not something that weighs heavy on my mind."

Managing the stress

Today, O'Grady faces logistical family challenges that add to the usual stress of an elected official's schedule. The O’Gradys have four children: Liz, a recent graduate of John Carroll University; Jack, who is studying accounting at the University of Cincinnati; Patrick, a junior at Hilliard Davidson High School; and Erin.

But it’s nothing compared to the demands of the restaurant business, said O’Grady, who for about five years owned and ran the Ringside Cafe, a popular Downtown spot that bills itself as the city's oldest restaurant (circa 1897). He sold it a year and a half after his first heart surgery.

"I told my wife 'this business is going to kill me, I’ve got to do something.'"

That "something" was public office. Shortly after finishing cardiac rehabilitation in 2000, O’Grady ran and won the race for Franklin County clerk of courts, a post he held for two terms.

Just after his second open-heart surgery, he announced his run for county commissioner, a seat he’s held for three terms (with plans to seek a fourth next year).

O’Grady had long talks with his dad, Pete O’Grady, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, about running for public office. They talked about elected life, and the officials he watched while growing up who handled pressure well and those who died young because they didn’t.

Part of cardiac rehab was learning how to manage stress and calm down.

"I’m not a high stress guy. I can let things go very, very quickly. ... I get fired up, I get worked up, but I’m pretty good at dumping those things," he said.

On this Thursday morning, O’Grady sat through a quick briefing, previewing items to be decided at the next commissioners’ business meeting. Afterward, he was in his office, where he meets throughout workdays with staff members, agency directors and other elected officials.

Deputy County Administrator Kris Long stopped by to discuss a few things. She worked alongside O’Grady’s wife in the Ohio Senate after his first open-heart surgery, so she was aware of the health issues.

She and other staff members don’t worry about O’Grady’s heart too much now, though.

"He’ll let us know if he needs to take care of something," Long said. "He is very open about this, which is great. I think it’s helpful to be as transparent as (he is) about it. It’s a real thing."

At midday, O’Grady headed to Ena’s Caribbean Kitchen on Cleveland Avenue in Linden to meet with Director Joy Bivens and other staffers from the Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services. Bivens finished her curry goat before the commissioner arrived, giving her more time to talk while O’Grady dug into his order of jerk chicken, cabbage and rice and beans.

"This is where I’m going to become indignant," Bivens said as she outlined proposed federal rule changes that would cut food assistance to needy kids in the community. O’Grady listened and asked questions between bites.

Later in the afternoon, O’Grady was on the North Side, offering introductory comments during an annual retail summit organized by the commissioners office and the Columbus Chamber of Commerce.

Beyond his elected post, O’Grady is active in the Democratic Party, serving on state and county executive committees, working with candidates and raising funds for campaigns.

"There are a lot of people in this world who think this is a stressful life," he said. "I think that this job ... is the least stressful part of my life. Being a dad’s more stressful than being a county commissioner or a politician."

After the retail summit, O’Grady had to pick up two of his kids and head home to fix dinner. He’s the cook in the household, and he said the family tries to eat together most evenings. On this night, he planned to put together an extra batch of chicken cacciatore for a family member who was having health issues.

O'Grady also had to wrap up details for a party he planned for the next evening to mark the 20-year anniversary of his first heart surgery.

"They basically said my survival rate was minimal," he said. "They called me the 'Miracle Man' ... My friends that were EMTs here in Columbus, they said, 'You survived what?'"


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