FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — As he looks back at the past 10 months of his life, Staff Sgt. Randell Adarme is filled with a sense of gratitude.
They are, after all, 10 months he might never have had.
Adarme unknowingly lived with a time bomb of sorts in his chest — a genetically inherited pre-disposition to heart disease that was on track to potentially end his life at just 40 years old.
“This is most definitely a second chance at life,” said the former drill sergeant with Company A, 35th Engineer Battalion, who is now completing the Army’s Common Faculty Development Instructor Course here. “It could’ve gone south really fast if it didn’t get caught really quick.”
Born in the Philippines, Adarme was adopted and grew up in Glendale, California, not knowing until recently that several of his blood relatives also suffered from heart ailments.
He eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Pacific Union College in the northern California town of Angwin, and taught kindergarten for five years in the San Francisco area. Finding himself laid off due to state education cuts, Adarme was working in a sporting goods store, when an Army recruiter walked up to him.
“He came in right at the perfect moment,” Adarme said. “My manager was yelling at me, and afterward, this customer walked up and asked me if I wanted to get yelled at for better pay. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said he was an Army recruiter. The next day I was in his office.”
Adarme signed up to be a combat engineer, and found himself in the Missouri Ozarks soon after, attending one station unit training not far from where he would later swap roles and be a drill sergeant.
“I was in Bravo Company, 35th,” he said, noting the odd experience of living the OSUT experience from both perspectives. “Coming back here (as a drill sergeant) and going to all the familiar ranges — it was weird.”
With his background in education, Adarme said he volunteered to be a drill sergeant.
“I thought it would be right up my alley, and I enjoyed being in the classroom with the trainees when it was time to take the hat off — there’s a time to be a drill sergeant and there’s a time to be a teacher or mentor,” he said.
One day in the fall of 2022, Adarme was ruck marching with his trainees at the start of a field-training exercise, when he felt some strange pain on the left side of his body.
“We were rucking three miles, and I had a 45-pound ruck on my back,” he said. “I was in the rear, helping push the stragglers. I was telling them, ‘Look, we have to push. We have to keep going.’ So, obviously, if I’m telling them to push, I have to push myself. I started feeling symptoms on the first uphill.”
The symptoms Adarme felt included a tightness in the left side of his chest and down his left arm, from his shoulder to his wrist. Additionally, his left leg felt “kind of sore.”
“But I just attributed it to my ruck sack straps being too tight on my shoulder, cutting off circulation,” he said. “So, I didn’t really pay any attention to it. On the downhill parts, it went away.”
The symptoms lingered through the night, and Adarme said he tried drinking more water, thinking he was dehydrated. By the morning, he said his whole left side was “tingly and numb.” He finally spoke to his senior drill sergeant and first sergeant about it.
“I said, ‘I don’t feel good’ — it felt like there was a hot knife going through my chest,” Adarme said.
Adarme’s first sergeant — a fellow 40-year-old — told him they needed to get over to the Emergency Room at General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital.
“He told me, ‘We’re old dudes. We can’t mess around with anything that has to do with our circulation or our heart,’” Adarme said.
After checking in at the GLWACH ER’s triage window, Adarme was given a CT scan and was told he had some blockages in his arteries.
“They said they didn’t have the facilities (to fix the problem), but we’re going to send you to a nearby clinic,” Adarme said.
An ambulance rushed Adarme about 90 miles down Interstate 44 west to Springfield, Missouri, to Cox Medical Center South, where they confirmed three of the four arteries around his heart were blocked.
“One main artery — they called it the widow-maker artery — was 90-percent blocked,” Adarme said, adding the others were at about 80- and 75-percent blocked.
A coronary artery bypass graft was his best option, Adarme was told, and after a “very bland, low-sodium Thanksgiving meal” at the hospital, the four-and-a-half-hour surgery was performed on Nov. 28. Adarme’s wife, Jennifer, held his left ankle as they moved him into the operating room.
“It was the only part of my body that didn’t have tubes coming out,” Adarme said.
The procedure included a two-hour period, when Adarme’s heart was removed from his body.
“The surgeon told my wife, ‘Mrs. Adarme, I literally held your husband’s heart in my hand.’ And she just lost it,” Adarme said.
Before the surgery, Adarme said he and his wife had that conversation “we avoid.”
“She was tearing up about it and her voice was quivering,” Adarme said. “She asked me, ‘If you don’t come back, what do you want me to do?’ I told her to cremate me and toss my ashes in the Pacific Ocean. It was morbid, because we don’t really talk about this. In my line of work, we should obviously talk about this, because you deploy, you go downrange, you can be killed. But it’s a morbid thing that we avoid. I think at that point, though, I had full confidence that I would make it through. They said they were going to give me the best doctor. The surgeon had been doing this for 21 years, and I said, ‘If I’m getting the best in the state of Missouri, let’s do it.’”
Being the spouse of a Soldier, Jennifer said she was familiar with the panic of hearing “something happened,” but being at Fort Leonard Wood, in a training environment, “was a different kind of panic I wasn’t expecting.”
“With everything he’s survived thus far, we were determined a tiny, little valve wasn’t going to get him,” she said.
While the procedure was successful, Adarme had a long period of recovery ahead of him — and that’s when he said his “Army family” stepped up and showed him how much he was appreciated in his unit.
“They have really come through for me and my family,” he said. “From my first sergeant coming over and watching football with me, or just sitting with me when my wife had to go out and run errands, to my battalion commander coming over and sweeping my kitchen and doing my dishes — they’ve been so accommodating for my health needs, my family’s needs.”
After many medical appointments, Adarme was found fit for duty and was given the opportunity to reenlist in June. He didn’t hesitate — he reenlisted indefinitely — and his wife suggested he request the ceremony be performed “somewhere significant.”
“She helped put it in more perspective for me,” Adarme said. “She told me, ‘You didn’t twist an ankle; you didn’t break an arm. You had a triple-bypass surgery, where your heart was out of your body.’”
They decided to see if they could have the ceremony on June 30, at the Springfield hospital, where his life was saved. Adarme said he didn’t think a lot of his battle buddies would show up — he was wrong.
“They were on cycle break, and I know how valuable drill sergeants’ time is,” he said. “I’m not trying to waste time to drive an hour and a half to go to a reenlistment ceremony that’s going to last 20 minutes and then drive back. I totally could understand. When I blasted it out, I said, ‘Don’t feel bad if you don’t show up.’ But then the whole company showed up. That really touched my heart. I will be friends with them for the rest of my life.”
Alpha Company Commander Capt. Autumn Mitchell administered the Oath of Enlistment, calling it a “deep honor and privilege.”
“I knew what a significant moment this was to his family, not just as milestone in his career, but as a symbol of what they all have overcome to make it to that day,” Mitchell said, noting the “close-knit team” that is Alpha Company. “I would not say we are special; we just strive to live up to the Army Values and steward the profession in a manner which honors what the public expects of us.”
Some of the nurses from Adarme’s care team were also able to attend, including one who was there from the time he was admitted until the time he left.
“It was so good to see him, and he said it was an honor to be part of the ceremony,” Adarme said. “It felt really good to see him and thank him for his devotion and dedication to his job.”
The unit also presented a coin and a plaque to Dr. David Zolfaghari, who performed the surgery, Adarme said.
“(The doctor) said, ‘I’m taking all the other stuff off my wall, and this is going right in the middle. I’m literally about to go into surgery, but I’m not leaving until we do this ceremony,’” Adarme said. “That’s when my wife said, ‘It wasn’t just a scratch. You matter to people.’”
For his part, “Dr. Z,” as he’s commonly called, said he is pleased he was able to help Adarme achieve his goal of reenlisting.
“This is why we do what we do – so people can get back to their lives and follow their dreams,” Zolfaghari said. “I am grateful for his service and sacrifice, and that he is able to fulfill his goals.”
Going forward, Adarme said this “second chance at life” has taught him to “take the opportunity to take your health seriously.”
“For any other Soldiers out there reading this, be more cognizant about your health,” Adarme said. “My wife was always telling me before, ‘Make an appointment. Make an appointment,’ and as much as it is the Army in me to tough it out, take your health more seriously.”