Five months after a massive heart attack left him in a medically induced coma for 11 days, Deerfield Beach High’s Bob Burns returned to the school’s wrestling room.
It’s where the 55-year-old almost lost his life, a place he has spent an estimated 36,950 hours over the past 24 years as a physical education teacher and wrestling coach.
“God didn’t put me back here to retire,” said Burns, who was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2007 and has taught for 34 years.
The last thing Burns remembers of March 28, 2012, is sitting down in that room to catch his breath after wrestling a student-athlete, Brandon Smith, in Wednesday roll-around. A tradition during the preseason and postseason, it’s meant to highlight proper technique.
Burns had started to turn purple and was without a pulse when the ambulance arrived. First responders used a defibrillator three times to try and revive him. Dr. Nabil El Sanadi performed a procedure called therapeutic hypothermia at Broward General Hospital that lowered Burns’ body temperature to 92 degrees to help minimize damage to the heart and limit brain damage.
During those 11 days, Lisa, his wife of 30 years, would head to the hospital in the early morning and “hope that was the day,” and she was relieved by one of Bob’s friends at night so she could sleep. Their 22-year-old son, Sean, was told by his mother to go fishing with friends.
“There was a lot of praying and hoping for the best,” said Lisa, who was told Bob could stay in a vegetative state. “It was awful. It made me sick watching people watch him. I never would let myself go there [thinking the worst]. I couldn’t.”
On April 8, which also happened to be Easter Sunday, Bob was taken out of the medically induced coma. Burns tried speaking to his wife, but words wouldn’t come out. He would go on to tell relatives that he didn’t see a white light, the devil or purgatory. As Burns recovered, those at the intensive care unit called him the “Miracle Man.” Instead of giving him a wheelchair upon his release, doctors offered him a standing ovation as he walked by the nurse’s station, returning home 26 pounds lighter on April 24.
There were warning signs leading up to the heart attack.
Burns, who is 5-2, 150 pounds, caught the flu and dealt with digestive problems during districts last February. When he visited a walk-in clinic, he asked for antibiotics but declined blood work. It had been seven years since he had visited a doctor, foolish — Burns claims — considering his mother, father, both grandfathers and an aunt suffered from heart disease.
Until the attack, it wasn’t rare for Burns to eat four beef and three fast food meals a week. On a typical night, he was lucky to get more than a couple hours of sleep.
“I thought there was nothing that I couldn’t do,” Burns said. “I took for granted that I was going to be around forever.”
Aside from missing a week of school, he couldn’t sleep or eat. Blessed with the gift of gab — he emceed football games while a student at Penn State in the late 1970s — Burns uncharacteristically sat during district, regional and state competition.
James Forbes, his assistant for 16 years and now his replacement as head coach, acknowledges two major changes in Burns since the heart attack: his compliance and penchant for Frank’s RedHot Cayenne Pepper Sauce.
“Be ready to laugh,” Forbes said. “He can talk the head off a doornail. If you don’t have a sense of humor, then you need to go somewhere else.”
Two days before the start of this weekend’s BCAA championships, Burns is the assistant working the stopwatch and keeping track of the bouts during practice. Forbes mans the mat.
Burns can no longer live wrestle, like he did on that fateful Wednesday in March. But he exercises five to six times per week. Doctors appointments have spaced out more over time. Sometimes, Forbes will shout a move and Burns’ head doesn’t “click right to it as it would have before.”
Realizing he has made a difference in people’s lives keeps Burns waking up every morning. During his time in the hospital, Lisa answered calls of condolences, ranging from a U.S. Navy SEAL to a friend visiting the Vatican.
The wrestler’s creed, a quote from Burns printed on a panel and sandwiched between framed photos of district champions on the red walls of the room, reminds each student-athlete of his privilege and responsibility.
“Some kids come to Deerfield and they have a bad time,” said Smith, a junior and co-captain on the team. “Coach Burns brings them into wrestling to put them on the right path. He’s a second father to everyone on the wrestling team.”
Within three weeks of his release from the hospital last spring, his band had a gig called the “Back from the Dead Tour.” But when Tony Viscardi, the lead guitarist, caught Burns complaining one day, he felt the need to chime in.
“Listen, dude, I’ve got a word for you: life,” Viscardi said. “A month ago, you were dead. You’ve got life. You’ve got to quit [this whining] and go ahead and realize what you’re able to do.”
For Burns, it was a reminder of his second chance and what he could make of it.