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Free Wheelin’: Strokes change ride attendant’s perspective on life

Posted on January 25, 2018 in Patient Stories

Free Wheelin’

Strokes change ride attendant’s perspective on life

After suffering four strokes and receiving life-saving treatment at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center, Gilbert Rodriguez has a new perspective on life.

Gilbert Rodriguez loves entertaining guests as they board The Great Smoky Mountain Wheel at The Island in Pigeon Forge. But he never enjoyed riding in the 20-story steel wheel’s gondola until after suffering four strokes.

“I used to get in The Wheel sometimes and I’d close my eyes so I couldn’t see down below,” the 61-year-old ride attendant said as he sat 200 feet in the air inside the Wheel’s VIP gondola. “But now I’m living like there’s no tomorrow. That’s what I tell people now: Make today your best day ever because you just never know. Love all your friends and family and do all the things you never thought you’d do, and accomplish things — because life is short.”

Rodriguez’s new freewheeling approach to life came after four strokes over a three-day period last April. A critical blockage of his carotid artery and a moderate blockage of his basilar artery were remedied with balloon angioplasty and stenting by neurointerventional radiologist Keith Woodward, MD, at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center.

Although the Comprehensive Stroke Center at Fort Sanders Regional, the hub of Covenant Health’s stroke hospital network, has dealt with thousands of such cases and commonly uses the procedure to open carotid arteries, Rodriguez was fearful. So fearful, in fact, that he popped the question to his coworker and girlfriend of five years, Michelle Oliver.

“Before they took him off to surgery, he asked me to marry him!” said Oliver. “I was like, ‘Are you serious?!’ He says, ‘If I make it out of this alive, I want to marry you.’ I said, ‘Are you serious or are you just playing with me? Because this isn’t funny.’ Then he said it again.’”

Oliver said yes, and they are looking to set a wedding date. Rodriguez is looking forward to the big event and enjoying life to its fullest. “Since all this has happened, it’s time to live and forget my fears,” he said. “I’m going to go ahead and get on these roller coasters that I’ve never ridden before.”

He looks back now only to express gratitude for the care he received.

“Dr. Woodward is the world’s greatest,” said Rodriguez, who was discharged two days after his procedure with only a slight limp as a reminder of his strokes, despite the possibility of more serious side effects.  ”He and his team took such great care of me that there are no words to describe just how great they are. They are just so fabulous. They just made me so comfortable, made me believe that they would take good care of me — and they did.”