Exclusive interview: Cadillac Jack on his heart attack, surgery & recovery

This was originally posted Friday, April 7, 2017 by Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

About 18 months ago, Cadillac Jack, the veteran Kicks 101.5 morning host, was passing a digital frame photo of himself from around 2010 with country star Billy Currington. He looked at himself and saw a middle-aged, overweight, not-very-healthy guy.

So at age 41, he decided to make a change in his sedentary, soda-laden life. He began swimming. He began drinking water instead of Coke. He and his family shifted their food consumption to a healthier mix. The result: he lost 50 pounds.

"I was probably the healthiest I've ever been," said Cadillac (real name: the much more scholarly sounding William Choate) in an exclusive interview Thursday. But on February 21, while swimming in the clubhouse pool, Cadillac felt a tear in his chest, a shooting pain. He got out of the pool, not sure what it was but he didn't think heart attack. So he drove home and told the part-time nanny that he was going upstairs to rest, that he simply didn't feel well.

She took one look at him and knew something was wrong. Very wrong. She offered to call 911. He said no, no, no, not necessary. She said he could fire her if he wanted to but she dialed those three digits immediately.

Within a few minutes, the Milton Fire & Rescue team showed up, sirens ablazin'. At first, they didn't think he was in too bad a shape. Then they did an EKG. He had an 80 percent blockage in a key artery.

They sent him straight to Wellstar in North Fulton and placed him into surgery immediately. He was awake the entire time. (There was no time to place him under.) Cardiologist Dr. Thomas Backer placed three stents in his heart via catheter, a surgery that took two hours. There was a huge screen for him to watch, but Cadillac said he chose to just keep his eyes closed and pray.

He had never been hospitalized a single time in his life.

Dr. Backer's surgery was a success and so far, there have been no major complications.

The heart attack, Cadillac said, was "a surprise to me and a surprise to most everybody else, including the doctors." His last health assessment before the heart attack was great. His family has no history of heart disease.

Fortunately, the doctors told him, he was in good enough shape to survive. If he had been any less healthy, he might not be around today.

Cadillac Jack, who goes by Caddy, spent four days in ICU and continues to do cardio rehab three days a week. He said he wanted to go back to work within 10 days of surgery but relented. His cardiologist's recommendation: five weeks off.

He returned March 27 and the station staged a huge welcome-back party at long-time advertiser Carl Black Buick GMC in Kennesaw. Program director booked a band, a visit by singer Mark Wills, well wishes from the likes of Garth Brooks and Brad Paisley and a proclamation from the City of Atlanta marking the day as Cadillac Jack Day. But the most emotional moment, Cadillac said, was meeting the paramedics who saved his life again so he could thank them in person.

Cadillac Jack, 50 pounds lighter than he was two years ago, at a "Welcome Back" party at Carl Black Buick GMC in Kennesaw on March 27, 2017. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/ rho@ajc.com

The physical part of the recovery, he said, has been measurable. The psychological part is much more difficult to assess. "It really truly will mess with your mind," Caddy said. "There are nights I'm afraid to go to sleep. While cardio rehab involves exercise and lectures on diet, it's also managing stress levels and emotions. You are very emotional after coming that close to death and surviving. It takes your life in a different direction and you see life from a different perspective."

For instance, he knows he needs to get back into the pool for regular exercise. Right now, it's a little too triggering. He did go back to see the pool for closure. "I know logically, swimming had nothing to do with the actual heart attack," he said. "It's tough to convince the emotional side of me. I've got to get over that. I will."

He has an older son in junior high and two younger girls. The youngest Charlotte, he said, at age 11, has been especially protective. Since he's on blood thinners, he said he has to be careful about breaking skin and bleeding. When he was opening some get-well cards with his index finger recently, Charlotte swooped in and stopped him. "You can't open things," she warned him. "You'll cut your finger!" And when she jumped in his lap recently and placed her head on his chest, he knew what she was doing: making sure his heart was okay.

Cadillac has been with the same radio station for 24 years save for a few years at a sister country station Y106 in the late 1990s. He is the quintessential loyal company man and one of the longest-running on-air personalities in Atlanta. Kicks owner Cumulus Media has been just as loyal in return, signing him to a new four-year contract on March 24.

"I'm happy and blessed to have the opportunity to do mornings every day with Kicks 101.5," Caddy said.

The fans have been provided him huge support since the heart attack. He remains humble and grateful. His wife Donna, he said, has been a rock.

But when he heard former Y106/Eagle morning host Rhubarb Jones died suddenly of a heart attack this past Sunday, he felt shook up once again. "Rhuby was a friend," Caddy said. "Rhuby was someone I looked up to when I got there. I was 19 years old and he and Moby were going at it.  I enjoyed listening to both of them. I learned so much from them both. Without Rhubarb Jones, I don't know where I would be today."

READ MORE: My 2013 profile on Cadillac Jack. 

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.