Lucky to be Alive

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:35 pm

As a snowstorm raged across southeastern Wisconsin last Jan. 22, an e-mail began to circulate around Milwaukee that said Mikel Holt had died. Actually, the editor-in-chief and associate publisher of the Milwaukee Community Journal was in the intensive care unit at Froedtert Memorial Hospital, having just undergone triple bypass surgery.
"They checked me into the hospital under an assumed name, so folks wouldn’t know what was going on," Holt recalled. "But some knew and started e-mailing each other, and one of the e-mails said I’d died."
He believes the rumor started after his surgery, when two of the three arteries that had been replaced began to have spasms.
"Because of this huge snowstorm, the operating team was still in the hospital," Holt said. "I had to undergo surgery again, and they put larger arteries in. The surgery was on Saturday, and I woke up on Tuesday."
A series of fortunate coincidences led Holt, who has been a regular panelist on the "Sunday Insight with Charlie Sykes" television show for about 10 years, to undergo surgery.
Holt had been experiencing chest pains for almost six months, but during a taping of the Sykes show last January, the pain intensified, and he began sweating.
"Afterwards, Charlie asked me what the problem was, and I told him it was probably acid reflux or something," Holt said.
Holt had already undergone a battery of tests after seeing a cardiologist recommended by his primary physician.
"He said I was basically OK, based on his diagnosis, but the chest pains (had) continued and started getting a little worse," Holt said.
Sykes was so worried that he called Holt’s wife, Warwees.
"He didn’t really buy into (the acid reflux), so he actually called my wife and expressed some concerns," Holt said. "When I arrived home, she ordered me to go back to the doctor. We went back to the primary physician, and she was looking for another cardiologist for me."
He called the cardiologist, but they were unable to schedule another appointment right away.
"In the interim, I was having lunch with Tom Brophy (the director of community relations for the Medical College of Wisconsin), and I was having some pain. My primary physician had given me pills for acid reflux for before I saw the cardiologist," Holt said. "Tom Brophy used to be the director of health and human services for Milwaukee County, and now he’s at the Medical College, so he knows a little about medicine."
Brophy told Holt he knew a supervisor who had similar symptoms and ended up having bypass surgery. Brophy asked Holt if he would like to see a specialist at Froedtert.
Holt agreed, and the following Monday, he underwent eight tests. His cardiologist, Dr. David Rutlen, scheduled him for an appointment that Friday while they awaited results from the stress tests performed by the first cardiologist.
"When I arrived to see (Rutlen), I was with my wife, and he looked over the other stress test results and came to the conclusion that there was something seriously wrong, so he scheduled me for catheterization that day," Holt said.
Initially, Holt refused. It was 10 a.m., and he was supposed to tape the Sykes show at noon.
"I said maybe we could do this catheterization next week, because I couldn’t miss that show, and it was too late to get a substitute," Holt said. "The bottom line was the show, my obligations. But (my wife) insisted, and I think we arrived at the cardiologist in the same car, so there was no way I could get around her."
Between his wife and Rutlen, it was "two on one," so Holt agreed to have the catheterization that day.
The procedure showed that two of Holt’s arteries were blocked, and Rutlen scheduled him for bypass surgery the next morning.
Although the date was marked by rumors of his death, Holt now describes it as his "rebirthday."
"I actually still have some of the sutures they used from when they pulled them out. I asked them to give them to me so I have them on my mantle as a constant reminder," Holt said. "I feel to a certain extent it had to be more than a coincidence that all these pieces fell together."
Holt says by Wednesday or Thursday after the surgery, he was already asking friends to bring a laptop to the hospital so he could get back to work.
"I actually wrote a piece and sent it to Charlie Sykes, and he put it on his Web site," Holt said. "As I heard later on, it was a little incoherent. I was a little drugged up."
Taking a month off of work was difficult for Holt. Not only was he itching to begin work again at the Milwaukee Community Journal, he had also recently decided to concentrate more on a public relations firm, Malik Communications Inc., that he and others had started 10 years before.
"It was really tough in terms of wanting to get back into the groove," Holt said. "I was still trying to work at the paper and do the PR firm at the same time, and lying on my back, it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world."
Holt began working half days and doing some work from home while he attended cardio rehab. He credits his wife with taking over a large part of his work with the PR firm.
"I didn’t get as immersed in meetings and all of that, and I would work on my column. With the Internet, you can actually do a lot of work while being in your bed," Holt said. "I just gradually started building up. You don’t know how much you miss work until you’re forced to abandon it for a while."
Holt says his colleagues at the Milwaukee Community Journal were very supportive during his recovery.
"Everybody stepped in," he said." A lot of what I do is gathering information from a variety of different sources, so people, politicians, would call me at home instead of the office. I kept up with all the current events, and I even had a couple of meetings at home. As necessary, people would bring me materials from the office."
His co-workers also knew when to tell Holt to take a break.
"If they saw me tiring, they would send me home," he said. "The publisher’s standing order was not to overburden me at all. Her husband’s a doctor, so he knew what was going on."
Holt believes the surgery was most stressful for his wife.
"She was constantly prodding me not to work, not to do this, not to do that," he said. "Fortunately, she had a job, so when she would leave, I would try to sneak out and get back before she did. I would set up the call forwarding to my cell phone."
Holt gave both Brophy and Sykes a picture frame with hearts on it as a thank you gift.
"Had I not had the Medical College as a client and had lunch with Tom Brophy, I might not be here today," Holt said. "(And) Charlie Sykes started the ball rolling."
Holt also believes he owes a debt of gratitude to his wife.
"The day David Rutlen wanted me to check in for catheterization – if my wife had not been there, I wouldn’t have done it," he said. "So I guess I had my priorities a little backwards."
Although in the year since the surgery, Holt has typically grown tired around midday, he now feels fully recovered. His physicians have agreed to let him begin karate again, and he believes his experience has reinvigorated his passion for journalism and social issues.
"I feel like I’m on a mission now," Holt said "I don’t hold my tongue on the Sykes show, and people see more fire in my columns. If I can survive this, I have no fears now."
Holt believes one of the areas where he can most make a difference is in the Milwaukee educational system.
"There’s so much that needs to be done," Holt said. "I’m on the board of a school organization and on the board of Messmer (High School) and the Black Alliance for Educational Options, so I’ve finally become fully immersed back into that, fighting for the kids."
Personal tragedy is also fueling his commitment.
"Two years ago, our oldest son died in a car accident," Holt said. "He was a teacher, so we started a scholarship for his class, so I rededicated myself to that."
Holt also is becoming more involved with his church.
"I just met with my minister last week, and he said there’s a whole lot to God I have to repay, so he’s putting me on a couple of committees," Holt said. "I feel that’s best. God helped me through this, so it must be for a reason."

Small Business Times, December 16, 2005, Milwaukee, WI

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