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‘Cardiac Cats’ give Panthers fan real chest pains, but he can’t stop watching

The Carolina Panthers have resurrected their old “Cardiac Cats” nickname this season by winning one thrilling game after another over the past two months.

Their habit of waiting until the final seconds to win a game is hard on everyone. But it has been particularly hard on a man I want to introduce you to today – a man who is a true symbol of a “Cardiac Fan” of these “Cardiac Cats.”

His name is Bill Rigsbee. And while watching the past two Panthers games – last-second victories over New Orleans and Atlanta – he has experienced serious chest pains and shortness of breath.

The first one of those health scares put Rigsbee into the hospital overnight. The second bout with chest pain was controlled with medication. It wasn’t a heart attack in either case, and he’s fine and back to work now, but it has still been worrisome.

Rigsbee is now under a doctor’s care. He is making changes in his diet and increasing the number of times per week he exercises.

His family doctor has given Rigsbee his blessing to continue watching Panthers games. But Rigsbee is also taking his blood pressure regularly and monitoring his overall health closely. He will watch Sunday’s 1 p.m. playoff game Sunday against San Francisco as usual from his recliner at home in Wilmington.

“I’m hoping for a blowout,” Rigsbee said.

So how did this happen? Rigsbee must be really old, incredibly overweight, gorge on junk food, have a history of high blood pressure and deal poorly with stress, right?

Wrong on all counts. Rigsbee, 43, is a UNC Charlotte graduate who grew up in Albemarle and served in the Air Force before college. He now works in Wilmington in a hospital emergency room as a physician assistant.

In the emergency room, Rigsbee deals calmly with work-related stress every day. He is 6 feet tall and 185 pounds. His family doesn’t have a history of high blood pressure, and he didn’t either until 2013.

“I’m a pretty laid-back guy,” Rigsbee said. “I don’t smoke. I rarely drink caffeine. I eat pretty healthy. I don’t yell at the TV. I run a lot – I’ve run several marathons and done a couple of the full Ironman triathlons. But the Panthers? I don’t know. They get to me. I care so much about what happens, and they’ve had so many close games.”

Rigsbee paused. “Even now, if I just think about watching them,” he said, “I can feel my heart racing a little bit.”

What Rigsbee is feeling is not terribly unusual. The emotional stress that a big game produces for a sports fan has been researched thoroughly. It has been documented that cardiac-related events can increase before, during and after big games for passionate sports fans.

Rigsbee’s doctor has recommended he cut as much stress out of his life as he can. The obvious thing, you might think, would be to stop watching the Panthers entirely.

But Rigsbee said he can’t do that – and his doctor ultimately said he doesn’t have to.

Instead, doctor and patient have decided on a course of action that doesn’t include daily medication but does include a number of lifestyle changes – such as a better diet and more exercise – designed to relieve stress.

Rigsbee had season tickets when the Panthers played their inaugural season at Clemson in 1995. He was there for the team’s first win, against the New York Jets, when Sam Mills intercepted a shovel pass and returned it for a touchdown.

Although Rigsbee has been to only a few games at Bank of America Stadium, he religiously watches the Panthers on television. His wife and 12-year-old daughter occasionally join him in front of the TV for games now, but only for a few minutes. Neither cares about football the way Rigsbee and so many other Panther fans do.

Rigsbee kept the TV on when Jimmy Clausen was the quarterback and the team went 2-14. He kept it on when Chris Weinke was the quarterback and the team went 1-15. Rigsbee loves Thomas Davis, DeAngelo Williams, Steve Smith and Jake Delhomme. The Panthers, in good times and bad, feel like a part of his family.

The health issue started 11 months ago. For years, Rigsbee’s blood pressure has been around 120/80. But while watching the most recent Super Bowl, when Baltimore edged San Francisco in a game Rigsbee didn’t even have a rooting interest in, a friend told Rigsbee his face was turning “beet red.”

Rigsbee was working at the hospital at the time but on a break and watching the Super Bowl. He checked his blood pressure, and it was 170/100. It went down as he game ended. But he later asked his doctor about it. The doctor prescribed Clonidine – a medicine used to treat high blood pressure, among other things.

Rigsbee said the doctor told him he didn’t have to take the Clonidine unless he had the same symptoms. They didn’t re-occur until nearly a year later, when the Panthers hosted New Orleans on Dec. 22.

“I was OK for the Monday night game against the Patriots, even though it was very intense, and all the others,” Rigsbee said. “I really liked all those early blowouts the Panthers had. But my doctor said all that stress from the past few months may have been kind of building up.”

Then came the Saints game, which Carolina eventually won 17-13 with a final-minute touchdown.

“It was early in the second half,” Rigsbee said. “I started getting chest pain and shortness of breath. I have a blood-pressure monitor from that first incident, and it was high. My wife wanted me to call 911, but I didn’t. I took one of the pills and felt better. My blood pressure went down. The Panthers won.”

Rigsbee drove in to work at the hospital that night after the game, but the symptoms re-occurred. The attending physician admitted him to the same hospital where he works. He had a stress test the next day, passed with flying colors and was released from the hospital. He went home and had a great Christmas with his family.

But on Dec. 29, as the Panthers struggled mightily against Atlanta, the same thing happened. Rigsbee’s blood pressure shot up to 170/105. The chest pain and shortness of breath came back.

The Panthers won and the Clonidine helped, and this time he didn’t have to be admitted to the hospital. But his doctor said he had to cut down on his stress.

So Rigsbee has been exercising more – at least four to five times per week – and monitoring his blood pressure closely. But the Cardiac Fan will continue to be wedded to his Cardiac Cats.

“I just can’t keep myself from watching on Sunday,” Rigsbee said. “But the Panthers could really help me out – and a lot of other people, too. They just need to win big.”

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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