In the player above: NBC4 Anchor Jerod Smalley welcomes new Sports Director Joe Nugent earlier this month.

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — People can touch your heart. 

Almost always, that means … emotionally. 

But it’s a unique relationship you have with someone who has touched your heart … physically. 

And so last month, on a cloudy Saturday morning, I went to meet with the man who touched my heart and made it whole. 

Five years ago this week, I met Dr. Steve Yakubov for the first time. The circumstances were not the best. 

It was Aug. 10, 2018, just after midnight, when my life suddenly — shockingly — changed. I had just arrived home from work, and as I tried to go to sleep, my right arm went numb and I couldn’t speak. I panicked and yelled to my wife, who saw the right side of my face drooping. The whole episode lasted for about 20 seconds. 

The next day around 10 a.m., I heard from the on-duty neurologist at Riverside Methodist Hospital that extensive testing revealed I had suffered a stroke. And it was not my first.

I was 39 years old.

Further testing revealed I had what’s called a Patent Foramen Ovale (a PFO, or a hole in the upper chambers of the heart). That hole was allowing blood to clot in my heart, then escaping into my bloodstream. That’s a fatal formula. And so, a few days later I met the man who was going to fix this problem. 

On this Saturday morning, in 2023, Dr. Yakubov had arranged to meet me for a round of golf. It’s hard to imagine the man has time to play a round considering the demands of his profession. 

Yakubov is Youngstown-born, Michigan-educated and nationally renowned. He’s the John H. McConnell Chair of Advanced Structural Heart Disease, System Medial Chief, Advanced Structural Heart Disease of OhioHealth, and Medical Director of Cardiovascular Studies for the OhioHealth Research Institute at Riverside Methodist. He’s among the nation’s foremost cardiovascular experts and has helped create new technology to treat heart disease.

I did not get “a” doctor. I got “the” doctor.

After meeting Steve, I learned I would have surgery to close the PFO. How it works is utterly fascinating. Through a vein in my upper leg, he would weave a tiny device up to my chest, make a left turn, and deploy the device into the gap in my heart to essentially seal off the hole. He sounded supremely confident this would solve the problem. All my brain heard was “HEART SURGERY” over and over. 

On Sept. 6, 2018, I walked into Riverside confident, but not 100% sure, I would ever walk out. Despite the risks, I trusted Steve. My surgery was delayed several hours because Yakubov had been called to assist in several emergency situations that day. Steve said that in an average week, he personally handles around 20 cardiac procedures. 

As I came to learn, my procedure was of the “drive-thru” variety. He’s done this hundreds of times. As he came into the operating room for the surgery, I was 100% awake. I remember basically everything about the next 30 minutes. From the music that played over the O.R. speakers to what we talked about. Yes, we had a full conversation while he was repairing my heart. 

What did we talk about? Mostly … golf. 

Rory McIlroy, his kids, etc.

I had a bleeding issue that lingered with my leg, and Steve says my case actually led him to change the way he stitches up patients for this procedure. He took extraordinary care of me and my family. 

Steve and I have kept in touch over the years, and I’ve been following the athletic pursuits of his three sons, who also met us for this morning golf round. They are Evan (a former golfer at Indiana), Connor (a former golfer at Emory) and Reece (a current member of Ohio State’s top-ranked tennis team). It goes without saying this is a family of high-achievers.

This was my first time meeting Steve’s sons, and it was immediately clear. 

The boys don’t like their dad. 

Instead, they adore him. 

They’ve bonded through their shared passion for golf, and most other sports. They truly admire what their dad has done for them and for people like me.

NBC4 Anchor Jerod Smalley, right, with Dr. Steve Yakubov, left, and Yakubov’s three sons

I’m not going to name names because it’s their business, but I’ll leave it at this. Many of the best-known people in central Ohio who’ve had a cardiac problem are Steve’s patients. I chatted with a couple of them before and after this golf round. A person who saves lives is, generally speaking, a popular person.

As we set out for 18 holes at a club I had never seen, let alone played before, it was clear: This family takes golf seriously while not taking themselves too seriously. After all, when you deal in life-and-death scenarios, you tend to not live and die with every shot. 

Golf is hard, although the sons make it look pretty simple (they hit the ball a mile). They’ve played golf around the world, at some of the most sought-after golf courses ever created. They are damn lucky, and they know it. They did their own hard work and earned what they have, but they had opportunities few young people get, and that in large part explains their thankfulness for their dad. 

On the tee, Evan gives his dad some advice about teeing the ball higher and launching it at a faster rate. Dad listens, and when he stripes one down the middle they let out the biggest cheers of the day. 

We spent a few hours hitting good shots and bad shots, trading wild, old stories and just having the best time.

And that’s the thing Dr. Yakubov gave me more than anything else: time. I feel great about having the time to see my kids grow up. To spend time with my wife who has been incredibly patient with me and my schedule over the years. Time to be a more present person. 

It’s time I’ll never take for granted.