CHESAPEAKE, Ohio — Most people who undergo heart surgery never want to see the inside of a hospital again.
Gage Rhoades, however, lives for working in the open heart intensive care unit at St. Mary’s Medical Center. After all, five years since surviving open heart surgery at Cleveland Clinic, Rhoades knows how important his role as a registered nurse in that unit is.
“I saw an article on Facebook about a nurse who had leukemia and how she’s working in the same hospital on the same floor,” Rhoades said. “For me, it’s the same idea. Different hospital, same idea. I can put into perspective what patients are going through, have empathy for them and understand the whole process of what it takes for them to fully recover.”
A former all-state basketball player at Chesapeake High School, Rhoades was diagnosed with sinus venosus atrial septal defect. That was a relief, as earlier he was told he had the more serious right ventricular hypertrophy, which would have ended his basketball career and greatly limited him in many areas of life.
“His mom and I were scared to death,” said his father Ryan Rhoades, himself a survivor of open heart surgery and a stroke. “The doctors told us Gage couldn’t exert himself ever again. This is a kid who played basketball, who ran two or three miles a day.”
Gage Rhoades, though, came back to play his senior season and accepted an offer to play at Kentucky Christian University. A greater calling than basketball, though, nagged at him.
Rhoades gave up his desire to be an engineer and opted for Ohio University Southern for nursing. Memories of how he was treated at Cleveland Clinic motivated the switch in fields.
“Before I had my surgery I was thinking about engineering — safety and mechanical,” Rhoades said. “After my surgery, nursing was my calling. The nurses at Cleveland Clinic were amazing to me, and I strive to be like them.”
Past the halfway mark for his BSN, Rhoades plans to become a nurse practitioner specializing in cardiothoracic surgery. Medical school remains a possibility. Rhoades said he will go where God calls him.
“I’m nothing without God,” he said. “I rely on the Bible verse 1 Peter 4:10, ‘Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.’ God wants you to serve others the best way you can. When I can tell others my testimony when I see that they’re hurting, it kind of lifts them up so they can think, ‘if he recovered, so can I.’ Anytime I can tell my testimony I do.”
Named the The Herald-Dispatch Lowell Cade Sportsperson of the Year in 2016, Rhoades receives some odd looks when he tells patients he underwent heart surgery. Most 23-year-olds have experienced few, if any ailments, let alone such an invasive surgery. He uses that, though, to comfort patients.
“I tell them my story and they tell me I look pretty young,” Rhoades said. “I just graduated in December and had open heart surgery five years ago. If I can recover fast, you stay healthy and pray on it, you can recover, too.”
Rhoades’ surgery was the result of a birth defect. If he could change that medical condition, he wouldn’t.
“It’s an absolute blessing,” Rhoades said of his experience. “God definitely did it for a reason. It’s really changed my life and shown me what’s important.”
Before his surgery, Rhoades experienced fatigue, headaches and shortness of breath. All those are maladies of the past. He even plays basketball in his brother’s Chris Lovely’s Tri-State Basketball League.
“I play as much as I can,” Rhoades said, with a grin.
Rhoades once loved basketball, but something else has stolen his heart. He and fiance Taylor Burnette are scheduled to be married May 8, 2021, exactly six years after Rhoades’ heart surgery.
Rhoades thanked dozens of people for helping him reach his goal of becoming a nurse. Family, friends, co-workers, coaches, teammates and, most of all, God, earned his praise.
“I have no limitations,” Rhoades said. “I feel like there’s more I can do than I could before my surgery. Each day I wake up is a blessing. No limitations. Full of opportunities. Shining my light is my purpose.”