'Mr. 500' to open today's NASCAR race

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Terry Green has never been to an auto race, but he's checking that item off in grand style. The retired public health and environmental worker was chosen to be the grand marshal for the Emory Healthcare 500 today at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

As marshal, Green will meet drivers, ride in the pace car and give the command to start engines at the beginning of the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the track in Hampton. It's an honor the Lawrenceville man never expected.

"This is pretty new to me. I've never been to an actual car race," Green said. "This is not something I would've ever dreamed of participating in."

The number 500 played a big part in the decision to name Green the grand marshal. It's a 500-mile race, and Green is Emory's 500th heart transplant recipient, prompting the nickname "Mr. 500."

The path to getting that heart was a long one, though. Green had a heart attack while dancing on a cruise ship as he was turning 50. By the time emergency workers got him off the ship, he went into cardiac arrest. It took three shocks from the defibrillator to get his heart back in rhythm. He then spent a week in the hospital in the Bahamas "hovering between life and death" before he was stable enough to return home.

Once back, his heart was stabilized but continued to fail for the next decade. By the end of 2006, "it just about gave out." On the transplant list, Green limped along for another year, getting regular treatments to drain fluid from his heart. Then, in March 2008, in the middle of the night came a phone call. He told the nurse to take a message. "I think you want to take this one," she replied.

They'd found a heart, he was told. Get ready.

By the next morning, Green was "in la-la land" and he was being prepped for surgery. That night, he had a new heart, but not without difficulty.

"I had a little trouble getting the heart to start," he said he was told. "But I wasn't aware of it, of course."

But his new heart ended up working fine. He takes a minimum amount of anti-rejection medicine, and his new ticker keeps on ticking.

"It's a good strong heart, because I've tested it out on the dance floor" at Chateau Elan, Green said. "The heart does real well, but the 63-year-old body aches the next day. But as long as the heart works the body is going to follow."

Green is looking forward to his adventure at the race track, where he'll meet his "adopted" driver, Kevin Harvick, watch the race from a suite and help in the presentation of the trophy to the winner, all the while mindful of how lucky he is. A friend recently died waiting on a transplant.

"There's just not enough replacement hearts to go around."