As someone who’s already had two heart attacks, the potential for another is in the back of local musician George Smith’s mind whenever he takes the stage — and on his lips.
“My wife said, ‘George, you should mention to everybody where your nitro is at,’” Smith said of advice he has heeded in informing audiences about nitroglycerin sublingual tablets being in his pocket which could prove invaluable in such an emergency.
“It probably would never happen,” he said of total strangers frantically administering that medication used to treat cardiac episodes by relaxing one’s blood vessels so the heart doesn’t need to work as hard while also requiring less oxygen.
Smith, who lives in Lowgap, agrees that such an announcement could save his life — or that of someone else under the same scenario through the gift of awareness.
“I think I used it as a way to help others that might have the same problem,” he said of incorporating the nitro advisory into his shows. The underlying message is that, with time being of the essence in such a crisis, people shouldn’t be bashful about intervening “if you see somebody keel over.”
As a 43-year-old man who had his first heart attack at age 35 and his most recent on July 12, George Smith has learned to live with that possibility. While others might have chosen to avoid any type of stress, including giving their all during concerts, Smith vowed to continue performing — to pursue his passion.
“I just love playing so much,” he explained. “It’s just a big part of who I am — I kind of lose myself when performing.”
Immediately after undergoing various medical procedures over the years, the musician says his physical condition has always rebounded as a result.
“I also feel much better currently than I have in a long time,” he said in discussing 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 must be cognizant of dietary and other restrictions.
“I have to remember to sort of take it easy.”
Many people know George Smith as the leader of a group known as MAUI — the Mount Airy Ukulele Invasion — a unique rock orchestra class he started which has included students ranging in age from 5 to 85.
More than 50 ukulele players sometimes perform at concerts and for special events in this area, and Smith is looking forward to MAUI recording a live album at the Reeves Theater in Elkin later this month.
“Everybody in MAUI has been really supportive,” he said of members’ response to his medical condition.
Smith’s musical talents aren’t just limited to the off-the-beaten-path instrument popularized in Hawaii.
He has played the mandolin in opening for Ralph Stanley, and the bass opening for Darius Rucker and Jason Michael Carroll.
The local musician also has been featured playing six-string banjo on an episode of the PBS television show “Song of the Mountains” with the Porch Dog Revival band, along with opening for musicians such as the Steep Canyon Rangers and Larry Keel.
As a member of the band Mood Cultivation Project, he did so for Lynyrd Skynyrd at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem. Mood Cultivation Project also was the warm-up act for groups including The Marshall Tucker Band and Goose Creek Symphony.
Smith additionally has used his musical talents to fill in with different groups where needed while also writing his own material.
“Now it’s either I’m a band leader or a hired gun — I enjoy doing both,” he said of gigs that mostly have included playing bass — although Smith has dabbled in a little bit of everything.
“Of course, I teach and I tune pianos as well,” he said of a multi-faceted career as “a self-employed musician.”
Smith is a longtime instructor at Olde Mill Music in Mount Airy, a family operation run by Jennie Lowry and her husband Rick.
“He’s very well-liked and thought of in this community,” Lowry said.
Heart troubles surface
The veteran musician grew up in the Beulah community, attending White Plains Elementary, Gentry Middle and North Surry High schools. During his senior year, Smith was a foreign exchange student in Germany.
He eventually would earn a college degree in German, but his musical interests grew to dominate Smith’s career goals. He held factory jobs in the early 2000s which he juggled with band-organizing activities.
Music became his main pursuit, especially with many local industries closing as the result of NAFTA.
Fate dealt George Smith an unwelcome hand about eight years ago when he experienced the first heart attack and was diagnosed with a condition involving a major blockage in the left anterior descending (LAD) artery.
“They refer to it as the widow maker,” Smith said, which in his case was a 99% blockage. He’s endured multiple artery blockages requiring the insertion of stents — small mesh tubes that hold open narrowed arteries.
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 most recent heart attack last month and an outlook of 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 go back for another heart cath,” he added regarding a procedure whereby a thin flexible tube, or catheter, is guided through a blood vessel to the heart to treat clogged arteries.
If that catheterization is unsuccessful, Smith will face heart bypass surgery, in which blood vessels are taken from another part of one’s body to circumvent a blocked artery.
Career could be curtailed
“I know I have missed a little bit of work because of this,” Smith said of how his heart condition has affected performance schedules — which also were hampered by COVID-19.
And even if the upcoming catheterization goes perfectly, he still faces the further prospect of that.
In the past, Smith has travelled to such places as New York for concert dates. Efforts now are made to keep destinations within a 16-hour travel radius to and back, such as Virginia Beach or northern West Virginia, in order to spend as much time as possible with wife Gin and 6-year-old son Dorian.
At one time, Smith had no health insurance, but does now, with the loss of income concerning him in looking ahead.
The local musician, who says he always has tried to be self-sufficient, did not broach the subject of possible donations from the public during an interview, discussing that only after being queried about how others might help.
“You don’t want to ask for anything,” Smith said proudly. “I’ve always been taught to work for what I have.”
He’s gotten a few dollars here and there from friends, which the performer says has been “overwhelmingly wonderful” and difficult to fully express in words.
And while Smith doesn’t want to ask for assistance from anyone, he acknowledged that at this point “it certainly would help.”
Folks can do so electronically via two popular online payment systems, Venmo and PayPal.
The respective account access information includes Venmo:@themusicofgeorgesmith and PayPal, [email protected]
Those without Internet access may make donations at Olde Mill Music.
“If I receive anything, I will certainly pay it forward in the future,” Smith pledged. “If people want to help, it would be appreciated.”
No matter what the future holds, George Smith is “grateful” at this point in time.
“I’m so grateful for the life I’ve had already,” he said.
And in looking ahead “I hope to be here a lot longer,” Smith observed. “But I’m still doing far better than the majority of the world in the grand scheme of things.”