For 35 seasons, Bob Ramsay molded young men into football players. The last 29 years of his career were spent at Dalton High School, where he coached his boys to seven league titles and nine playoff appearances. He was state AP Football Coach of the Year in 2009.
He retired after the 2009 season with a career record of 200-103-1. Many of his accomplishments can be seen through the plaques hanging on the walls of his office in his Norton home. He and his wife, Lynn, built the house and moved there last year; but, they spent most of their adult life in Dalton area.
They have three grown children and an attentive 4-year-old corgi mix, Ace, who herds their three grandkids.
None of that could have prepared him for what was to come.
“He’s very lucky,” said cardiologist Dr. George “Skip” Seese, who is affiliated with Affinity Medical Center in Massillon and Stark Medical Specialties. Ramsay coached Seese’s three sons in football and Seese served as the team’s doctor.
“He could’ve easily dropped dead,” Seese said.
Health screening Ramsay had a benign tumor the size of a thumb in his heart — and blockage in his left main coronary artery, requiring emergency surgery.
The tumor was found first, then the artery blockage. Seese said either the tumor (also known as artrial myxoma) or artery blockage easily could have killed him.
None of that crossed Ramsay’s mind when his wife, a Dalton teacher, signed both of them up for a free health checkup at the school on the morning of March 3.
Neither of them expected much from the Life Line health screening, which are basic exams to see if any medical conditions exist. Schools, businesses and pharmacies often offer this basic service.
In most cases, these screenings are quick and uneventful. And if a health problem is detected, often further tests prove the initial results were false. But it’s better to get checked out, Seese said, then ignore symptoms. An important lesson for everyone.
Lynn Ramsay went into her screening and finished in 10 minutes. No health issues. Her husband followed while she waited. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
Minute after minute passed and no husband. Lynn Ramsay thought,
“What’s taking so long back there?”
Turns out, Bob Ramsay did have a problem and health officials urged him to see a doctor immediately.
“I expected an uneventful trip and mine snowballed into something much larger,” Bob Ramsay said from his home, where his daughter, Shannon, son-in-law, Nick and two of his three grandchildren were there for dinner.
He hugged his 6-month-old grandson Liam. Three-year-old Regan, whom Bob Ramsay played Barbie with earlier, kept his wife’s attention. The other grandchild, Mallory, is son Max and daughter-in-law Lindsey’s daughter. The Ramsays also have a daughter, Hally, who is a nurse.
Lucky to be alive
Bob Ramsay said he made the appointment for the same day with Seese. The doctor was skeptical about the findings from the screening but told Ramsay to come in anyway to double-check. Seese said many of his patients have had false screen tests or “overcalls.”
“Bob is a stoic guy,” Seese said. “He’s a typical football coach, not one to admit there’s anything wrong with him. But I was expecting to find nothing. When I get in there, you could see the tumor right away.”
Seese said the tumor, which he suspects had been growing in Ramsay’s heart for four or five years, had tentacles.
It would have taken only a speck of a tentacle to break free and obstruct the blood flow for Ramsay to have a stroke.
Immediately, Seese admitted Ramsay into Affinity and inserted a heart catheter into Ramsay’s heart. A heart catheter is a long, thin tube that allows doctors to run tests on the heart or treat the heart.
Cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Antonios Chryssos, director of Affinity’s heart program, also was brought into the discussion to remove the somewhat rare myxoma tumor.
“It’s actually quite common in western Stark County and Tuscarawas County. In the last five years, I’ve performed 10 to 15 of these operations — that’s quite high (for a small area of population),” Chryssos said.
Seese added that he has seen nine myxoma patients in the past 20 years — seven of which have been within the past two years.
“I bet we’ve done more myxoma surgery in the last year than the Cleveland Clinic,” Seese said.
Both doctors were unsure why there is an unusually high number of myxoma patients in this area.
“I don’t know,” Chryssos said. “It’s an observation.”
Back to health
The day after the health screening, the tumor was removed. The next day, Ramsay had double bypass surgery for the artery blockage.
“In less than 48 hours, I had all these things done and at 11:30 a.m. (March 3), I was fine,” Ramsay said. “I think I was fortunate….”
Ironically, the tumor saved his life.
Seese said the only reason they found the coronary heart disease was because the tumor brought Ramsay into the hospital for medical care.
While they examined the tumor, Seese checked for artery blockage.
“You don’t want to take a tumor out and have him have a heart attack because you didn’t look for blockage,” he said. “He would’ve needed open heart surgery whether the tumor was there or not.”
The left artery supplies roughly 80 percent of the blood to and from the heart — any clogging could be fatal.
“Those are the ones that people walk across the street and drop dead,” Seese said. “A widow maker. He could’ve been dead while I stood next to him on the football field (years earlier).”
Chryssos said both operations went well.
Ramsay, who enjoys a calmer lifestyle in retirement, walked out of the hospital a few days later healthy.
He has lost some weight since the surgery, mostly due to his own change in diet. He walks regularly and has begun cardio rehabilitation.
“Everything was so rapid pace, you really didn’t have time to be freaked out. After it was over, you were like, ‘Wow,’ ” Ramsay said.
Both Chryssos and Seese said the moral of Ramsay’s story is that no one — including men — should ignore symptoms.
“We live in a society where we’re taught to be tough,” Chryssos said. “And yet, that can be a drawback. You cannot ignore the symptoms. A shortness of breath is not just because you’re getting older. And chest pressure might not be because you’re getting old.”
Looking back, Ramsay said the signs were there. He just thought it was his age.
“I’m pushing 60,” he said.
A lot of guys say the same thing, Seese said.
“Most men downplay their symptoms. We always want to rationalize it, so we’re OK with it in our mind and put it off,” he said. “Don’t ever be ashamed to go and get checked out. It’s better to be told it’s nothing.”
DR. GEORGE “SKIP” SEESE III
Seese, a cardiologist, is on the Affinity Medical Center staff and affiliated with Stark Medical Specialties.
He earned his medical degree from Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Athens. He interned and did his residency at the former Doctors Hospital of Stark County. He completed his fellowship at the Deborah Heart and Lung Center in New Jersey.
In 2005, Seese was named Physician of the Year by the American Heart Association. He resides in Dalton with his wife and children.
DR. ANTONIOS E. CHRYSSOS
Chryssos, a cardiothoracic surgeon, started the open heart program at Affinity Medical Center, where he remains its director. He also founded Mercy Medical Center’s highly ranked heart program in 1990. He teaches at Northeastern Ohio Universities Colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy in Rootstown.
Chryssos, a Pennsylvania native, earned his medical degree from National Kapodistrial University of Athens in Greece. He interned and completed his residency at McKeesport Hospital in Pennsylvania. He finished his fellowship at Ohio State University Hospital in Columbus. He has written articles in several medical journals and trade publications.