As someone who’s already had two heart attacks, the potential for another is in the back of local musician George Smith’s mind when he takes the stage — and on his lips.
“My wife said, ‘George, you have to tell everyone where your nitro is,'” Smith said of the advice he followed in educating the public about nitroglycerin sublingual tablets in his pocket, which in such a emergency could be invaluable.
“It probably would never happen,” he said of complete strangers frantically administering medication used to treat heart attacks by relaxing blood vessels so the heart doesn’t have to work as hard and also needs less oxygen.
Smith, who lives in Lowgap, agrees that such an announcement could save his life — or someone else’s in the same scenario through the gift of consciousness.
“I think I used it as a way to help others who might have the same problem,” he said of incorporating the nitro advice into his shows. The underlying message is that, now that time is of the essence in such a crisis, people should not be shy to intervene “if you see someone fall over”.
As a 43-year-old man who had his first heart attack at age 35 and his most recent one on July 12, George Smith has learned to live with that possibility. While others would have chosen to avoid any kind of stress, including giving it their all at 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 on the gig.”
Immediately after undergoing various medical procedures over the years, the musician says his physical condition has always recovered as a result.
“I also feel much better now than I’ve felt in a long time,” he said when discussing the aftermath of the July heart attack.
“The challenge is to do as much as possible without overdoing it,” added Smith, who also needs to be aware of dietary and other restrictions.
“I have to remember to take it easy a little bit.”
Many people know George Smith as the leader of a group known as MAUI – the Mount Airy Ukulele Invasion – a unique rock orchestra class that he started with students from ages 5 to 85.
More than 50 ukulele players sometimes perform at concerts and for special events in the area, and Smith is looking forward to MAUI recording a live album later this month at the Reeves Theater in Elkin.
“Everyone in MAUI has really supported me,” he said of members’ response to his medical condition.
Smith’s musical talents are not just limited to the off-the-beaten-path instrument that is popular in Hawaii.
He played the mandolin in the opening for Ralph Stanley, and the bass opening for Darius Rucker and Jason Michael Carroll.
The local musician also played a six-string banjo on an episode of the PBS television show “Song of the Mountains” with the Porch Dog Revival band, along with an 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 the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem. Mood Cultivation Project also warmed up groups like The Marshall Tucker Band and Goose Creek Symphony.
Smith has additionally used his musical talents to fill in where necessary with different groups while writing his own material at the same time.
“Now I’m either a bandleader or a mercenary — I like doing both,” he said of gigs that mostly involved bass — though Smith’s been involved in a little bit of everything.
“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 is much loved and thought of in this community,” Lowry said.
Heart problems come up
The accomplished musician grew up in the Beulah community and attended White Plains Elementary, Gentry Middle, and North Surry High schools. During his senior year, Smith was a foreign exchange student in Germany.
He would eventually earn a university degree in German, but his musical interests grew to dominate Smith’s career goals. He had factory jobs in the early 2000s, juggling them with band organizing activities.
Music became his main occupation, especially with many local industries shutting down as a result of NAFTA.
Fate gave George Smith an unwelcome hand about eight years ago when he suffered the first heart attack and was diagnosed with a condition involving a major blockage in the left anterior descending artery (LAD).
“They call it the Widowmaker,” Smith said, which in his case was a 99% lockout. He has endured multiple artery blockages that require the insertion of stents — small mesh tubes that keep narrowed arteries open.
Smith went through a certain procedure where two stents were placed together to form one “because I have an oversized heart.”
Several treatments over the years led to his most recent heart attack last month and a prospect of further medical uncertainties.
“I’m on my way to my appointment with the cardiologist now,” Smith said when contacted last week.
“I’m going back in two weeks for another cardiac catheterization,” he added in reference to a procedure in which a thin flexible tube or catheter is passed through a blood vessel to the heart to treat clogged arteries.
If that catheterization fails, Smith will undergo bypass surgery, which involves taking blood vessels from another part of the body to bypass a blocked artery.
Career can be curtailed
“I know I missed a bit of work because of this,” Smith said of the impact of his heart condition on performance schedules — which were also hampered by COVID-19.
And even if the upcoming catheterization goes perfectly, he still has the prospect of it.
In the past, Smith traveled to places like New York for concert dates. Efforts are now underway to include destinations within a 16-hour round trip radius, such as Virginia Beach or northern West Virginia, to spend as much time as possible with wife Gin and 6-year-old son Dorian.
Smith used to have no health insurance, but now he does, with the loss of income that concerns him looking ahead.
The local musician, who says he has always tried to be self-sufficient, did not bring up the topic of possible donations from the public during an interview, but only discussed it after being asked how others could help.
“You don’t want to ask for anything,” Smith said proudly. “I’ve always learned to work for what I have.”
He’s gotten a few bucks here and there from friends, which the artist says was “overwhelmingly awesome” and hard to put into words.
And while Smith doesn’t want to ask for help from anyone, he acknowledged that at this point “it would certainly help.”
People can do this electronically through two popular online payment systems, Venmo and PayPal.
The respective account access information includes Venmo:@themusicofgeorgesmith and PayPal, firstname.lastname@example.org
People without internet access can make a donation to Olde Mill Music.
“If I receive something, I will definitely prepay it in the future,” Smith promised. “If people want to help, that would be appreciated.”
Whatever the future holds, George Smith is “grateful” right now.
“I’m so grateful for the life I’ve already had,” he said.
And looking ahead, “I hope to be here for a lot longer,” Smith noted. “But I’m still doing much better than the majority of the world in the grand scheme of things.”