“I just keep praying praying praying that maybe they were wrong … maybe something was overlooked … maybe there is something ELSE that can be done.” — Carleigh Pickett’s Facebook post, Dec. 31, 2021, 1:35 p.m.
The search for something ELSE ended in Seattle.
It began with a heart attack on a film set in Idaho.
On July 30, 2021, Jay Pickett slumped off the side of his horse while waiting to rope a steer on the set of “Treasure Valley” — a movie the veteran actor starred in, wrote and produced. His nephew, former University of Washington quarterback Cody Pickett, said Jay “took care of his body like crazy. He didn’t look like he was 60. He looked like he was in his 40s. He was a guy with a six-pack.”
And he was dead at 60.
Which prompted his nephew to investigate his own heart health.
Like Jay, Cody Pickett appeared in excellent shape. In five seasons in Seattle, from 1999 to 2003, he started 35 games and threw for 9,916 yards with 53 passing touchdowns and 42 interceptions, and he added 11 rushing scores. He was selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the seventh round of the 2004 NFL draft before appearing in six games across the next two seasons.
After retiring from football, Cody built a family with his wife Carleigh in their native Idaho, founded a company called Financial Insurance Group and began coaching varsity boys basketball at Eagle High School, outside of Boise. He exercised five to six days a week, plus countless pickup games and practices with tireless teenagers.
He was 41 years old and presumably healthy … with a time bomb stuffed inside his skin.
So they started with a coronary calcium scan — an X-ray test that detects calcium-containing plaque in the arteries. Measuring calcified plaque can help doctors identify coronary artery disease before the onslaught of signs and symptoms. According to the Mayo Clinic, a score between 100 and 300 indicates moderate plaque deposits — “a relatively high risk of a heart attack or other heart disease over the next three to five years.”
A score greater than 300 reveals a severe heart attack risk.
Cody’s score was 1,600.
That prompted a CT scan, followed by a coronary angiogram — the latter utilizing X-ray imaging to identify possible restrictions in a heart’s blood vessels. Depending on the result, Cody and Carleigh accepted that a small tube called a stent might be placed in an artery to restore blood flow to his heart.
Instead, they were told Dec. 30 — in a Nampa, Idaho, hospital that Cody declines to name — that, because his left anterior descending (LAD) artery was so significantly blocked, it would be impossible to place a stent. He needed coronary bypass surgery.
It was a worst-case scenario Cody and Carleigh had never considered.
“It was never even something that we thought would have been a possibility,” Carleigh Pickett told The Times last week. “It was not anywhere on our radar, which I think was a reason it caught me so off guard. I literally thought, ‘We’re either going to go in here and they’re going to put a stent in, or they’re not.’ ”
Because of the New Year’s holiday, surgeons weren’t immediately available to perform the procedure; it was scheduled for the following Friday, Jan. 7.
Which meant Cody and his family were allowed to leave. They went, of course, to the Eagle High School basketball gym — where his team was participating in a holiday tournament, wrapping up a 58-40 win over Post Falls High. He sneaked upstairs to catch the fourth quarter from the bleachers, before addressing his boys in the locker room.
“I just broke down,” Cody Pickett said. “(I told the team), ‘Hey, look: I have to have open-heart surgery.’ I have my little 5-year-old boy (Cruz) on one knee and my 8-year-old girl (Mayzee) there with me, and my older son (Cash) was roaming around.
“But it was emotional telling them, ‘Hey, look: I don’t know when I’m going to be able to come back, if I can be back with you at all this season.’ You’ve got your two kids hanging on you, and they’re sad. They’re scared, because they don’t know what’s going on. So it was very emotional, scary times.”
And not just for Cody, Cruz, Mayzee and Cash. That night, Carleigh Pickett lay awake, staring at the ceiling, with her high-school sweetheart asleep by her side. In the two decades since she drove seven-and-a-half hours from Idaho for every Husky home game, they’d built a family and a home and a life together.
At any moment, Cody’s heart might have abruptly stopped beating. Drowning in the darkness, she lay there and cried.
· · ·
At 1:35 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2021, Carleigh Pickett released a prayer into the atmosphere.
More literally, it was a 521-word Facebook post, intended to update friends and family on Cody’s condition. It promptly tore through social media like a homing missile, garnering 837 reactions and 532 comments (so far). For a full day, Carleigh meticulously monitored the responses.
Which is when she saw it.
“Hi, my name is Channing Wyles, and I’m on my wife’s Facebook page. I was a punter for the Huskies from 86 to 91. I’ve been in the interventional cardiology space as a company representative for the last 21 years and I have a lot of experience with Cody’s stent procedure. I also know Dr. Bill Lombardi at the University of Washington Medical Center. He’s one of the best in the country, if not the world, at placing coronary stents. Feel free to give me a call. I’m happy to discuss the procedure and arrange a conversation with Dr. Lombardi. It’s worth a second look prior to open-heart surgery. He’s a Husky fan. Our prayers are with you and Cody. Go Dawgs!”
On the couch in Cody’s home office, both Cody and Carleigh burst into tears.
“I couldn’t even read (Wyles’ message) the first couple times. It would just make me emotional,” Cody Pickett said last week. “Now I’ve read it so many times that I can get through it.”
On New Year’s Day, shortly after reading Wyles’ response, Cody messaged his fellow Husky alum.
And in doing so, gave him a birthday gift.
“That day when they finally responded — because I didn’t know if they were going to respond, because the message was buried so deep in Facebook — I was sitting around with my wife and my family,” said Wyles, who initially saw Carleigh’s post on Dawgman.com, a UW football message board. “It was my birthday, and we were just hanging around with some friends. Everybody at the table got tears, just to know that we were going to be able to help somebody.”
Wyles contacted Lombardi, who immediately called Cody and discussed the possibility of a stent procedure. Following a 30-minute Zoom call later that week, they scheduled an appointment for Jan. 10 — when Cody and Carleigh would fly to Seattle, and hopefully receive a potentially life-saving stent.
That day, Cody and Carleigh arrived at UW Medical Center at 10 a.m. for a 2 p.m. procedure, though earlier appointments pushed it to 3:45.
“That’s like sitting in the locker room of a huge game and having a rain delay,” Cody said with a laugh. “You’re anxious and not knowing what to expect.”
To kill time, Cody read the handmade cards his three kids made for the occasion — providing encouragement, and in one case, a prophetic prediction. Ten-year-old Cash Pickett drew a picture of Lombardi preparing to perform the procedure, but with the accompanying thought bubble added as well:
“This looks super easy!”
“He just kind of spoke it into existence,” Cody said.
When Cody eventually went into the operating room, Wyles — who was scheduled to work in Seattle that week, but flew from his home in Battle Ground a day early to be with his newfound friends — sat with Carleigh throughout the 45-minute procedure.
“Because I know how scary it is, and I know how nervous they were, and it’s a really, really big deal,” Wyles said, when asked why he made the extra effort. “It’s not bypass surgery, but it’s still a procedure, and there’s still risk. She was so worried about him, that something might go wrong, and I just wanted to be there to help her — just like I would want someone to be there for my wife if I was the one going through the procedure. The connection we had was Husky football, and it just felt right.”
Added Carleigh Pickett: “He was wonderful. It was very kind of him. He did not have to do that. It restores your faith in good people.”
Speaking of good people, Cody’s hospital room was outfitted with a picture of Pickett from his UW playing days — signed by each member of the Huskies’ coaching staff. The next morning, running-backs coach Lee Marks delivered a UW care package as well.
But first, Lombardi successfully placed a stent that relieved blood flow to Cody’s left anterior descending artery — which, if obstructed, produces heart attacks often referred to as “widow-makers.” On his phone, Cody sat in the recovery room and watched Eagle secure a 69-42 win over Boise High.
“I hopped on a FaceTime with my kids right before they went into the locker room,” Cody said. “That was emotional. I sat in the recovery room for about five hours, but I felt like I could’ve sat there for five days, just because I was so relieved.”
Before he was discharged from UW Medical Center that night, Cody Pickett asked Lombardi if he was allowed to coach the Eagle Mustangs against Centennial the following Friday.
“As long as you win,” Lombardi said.
· · ·
Cody Pickett is winning in more ways than one.
In his first game back as Eagle’s coach, the Mustangs earned a convincing 61-31 win over Centennial. He sent a video from the entire team to Lombardi, voicing their thanks, from the locker room. At 13-2, they’re primed for a state-title run — which Pickett says “would be icing on the cake if we could do something special, because we’ve had some adversity to overcome this year.”
To be clear, the adversity isn’t over. In the wake of his stent procedure, Cody will be on a blood-thinner for a year to prevent clotting in his arteries. He’ll use statins — cholesterol-lowering drugs — for the rest of his life, while also transitioning to a majority plant-based diet.
And yet, these are trivialities compared with the complications associated with open-heart surgery.
Cody has his health, his family, his team, his career — and his alma mater.
Without the last, he may not have the rest.
“I was very fortunate to be recruited by a lot of people out of high school,” Cody said. “But I always knew that Washington felt right. From Cary Conklin, Scott Linehan, Jim Lambright, that first staff, I just knew that was home.
“So it was very emotional, thinking about going back up there. That’s a place that gave me an opportunity to have a wonderful education and put me through so many positive moments, trying moments. To go back 20 years later and have a life-altering procedure done, how special is that? It doesn’t get any better.”
But Pickett’s support system also extends far outside of Seattle.
If he didn’t before, he knows that now.
“When I was playing for the Huskies, I would try to sneak out of media days,” Pickett said. “I never really wanted any kind of attention. So when (Carleigh) said she was going to post (their situation on Facebook) I was like, ‘Oh, I really don’t want you to. I don’t want people knowing.’
“I’m so thankful she did, because if she didn’t post it I would be on Day Seven after open-heart surgery. I would literally just be getting out of the hospital. She put it out there, and it spread like wildfire, and it got reshared and reshared. It was overwhelming. It made me feel very emotional, like, ‘What did I do to deserve all this love?’ ”
Added Carleigh Pickett: “I don’t think he realized what an important person he is to a lot of people and how loved he is.”
Turns out, a stent procedure alone didn’t save Cody Pickett from open-heart surgery.
It was something ELSE … and someone ELSE.
Channing Wyles. Bill Lombardi. Friends. Family. Husky football fans.
“It feels good to help people,” Wyles said. “Dawgs helping Dawgs.”