Friday, July 19, 2024

Andy Altee Resilience Triumphs

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Beaches Local Makes Remarkable Recovery From Stroke

There’s a lot to know – and love – about Altee, whose storied career includes 30 years as a lifeguard with the American Red Cross Volunteer Life Saving Corps in Jacksonville Beach, plus stints in the U.S. Navy, bar bouncer, police and corrections officer, a school board cop, a Florida Department of Children and Families investigator and a TSA (Transportation Security Administration) officer at the Jacksonville International Airport.

“I was running the body scanner when I realized I was drooling. I tried to lift my left arm and couldn’t. I knew I was having a stroke,” he recalls of the moment that proved particularly frightening because he had seen it before, when his mother suffered a stroke in 1964.

Andy’s mother, Netinell Mickler was of the Mickler family, who helped settle St. Johns County in the 1820s. Sidney Mickler led construction of a 600-foot-long fishing pier out of live oak and palm logs with nary a power tool in sight at what is now Mickler’s Landing Beach in St. Johns County back in 1930-something. Altee’s defiant bounce-back from a massive stroke that left him in an extended coma in 2014.

Word of Altee’s stroke spread with dizzying speed. Inundated with phone calls, Altee’s sister Cam Altee Brown created a Facebook page to provide updates.

“Within 24 hours, there were 1,000 people on that page,” she said.

Over the next six weeks, as Altee remained in a coma, the Beaches community rallied. An airplane banner reading “GET WELL SOON ANDY BIG GUY ALTEE” flew over the ocean. Beaches Diner’s marquee let Altee and his family know they were praying. And, in a nod to Altee’s 10-gallon-donor status, a “Give Like Andy ‘’ blood drive racked up 55 units – enough to help save 165 lives.

Jared Kizer, who befriended Altee when the two were sixth graders at Fletcher Junior High in Jacksonville Beach said he was shocked when heard about his stroke because Altee was the healthiest person he knew. “Now, looking back, I should have known something was wrong because he complained about a headache and kept squinting his eyes like he couldn’t see, “ said Kizer.

“I thought, ‘I’m back!’” Altee recalls, though he knew life would be different. “The day before my stroke I was going to the gym every day, bench pressing 500 pounds. They called me ‘Big Guy’ because I was 6’2, 240 pounds, living a cartoon of a life. I realized I was not going to be the same person.”

“The doctors gave me a 13-percent chance of survival,” says Altee.

Altee spent most of the next five years in bed, cared for by his stepmother who lives nearby. But he continued therapy, stayed in touch with friends and, a few years ago, scored an electric bike.

“Now, I’m all over the place,” he says. “I kicked that diagnosis. I ride 10 miles three days a week on my bike with my left side paralyzed. My right side does all the work.”

Though recovery has been a long road and is still ongoing, those who know Altee are unsurprised at his indomitable spirit. Brown noted that her brother swam the Volunteer Life Saving Corps’ annual ocean marathon when he was in high school. “He came in dead last, but he did it. After he had his stroke, he swore he was going to do it again.”

“The Corps is very important to Andy and the marathon is an important aspect of the tradition,” adds longtime friend and fellow lifeguard-turned-emergency medicine physician Andrew Schmidt, who just happened to be one on the medical team that treated Altee. So, two participating lifeguards tied themselves to a rowboat and, with Schmidt following for safety, towed Altee the entire three miles of the marathon. “I don’t think he stopped smiling once during the two hours it took. I picked him up and carried him across the finish line and the emotion on his face was something pretty special.”

“He is not going to sit on a pity pot,” Kizer says. “He is not going to give up or let his condition hinder him. He’s going to keep going, keep voicing his opinion, keep getting up and riding his bike. He hasn’t changed a bit. As long as he has that same will to live and great spirit, he’s going to be here for a while.” 


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