Blacksmith's heart attack leads to cardiologist's photo shoot
Jerry Eyth knows how to take the heat.
Temperatures in the coal-fired forge at his Donegal Township home can exceed 1,600 degrees when he's hammering railroad spikes into knives or a piece of steel into a leaf-shaped candy dish.
“Every day I go into my shop and make knives,” said Eyth, who also is known as G.W. and has the given name Gerard. He uses skills he and his son, Daniel, picked up from seasoned blacksmiths who offer classes at the Fort Allen Antique Farm Equipment Association in East Huntingdon.
“We don't have a power hammer. We swing a hammer with our arms,” Eyth said. “You're sweating no matter what when you're working on the forge.”
As strenuous as this side occupation may be for the former contractor turned blacksmith, it was a more pedestrian task that preceded a heart attack and a health scare for Eyth in May 2016.
“I was just unloading five or six cases of water bottles off my truck,” he recalled. “I put them on the porch and walked in the house, and I started getting this pain in my chest — and then it was in my arm and my jaw. I knew what it was, and we called an ambulance.”
That emergency trip started Eyth on a journey that brought him under the care of Excela Health cardiologist Dr. Howard Grill, and then in front of the doctor's camera lens. The resulting portrait and those of four other patients whom Grill photographed are arrayed on a first-floor wall of the new Excela Square at Latrobe ambulatory care center in Unity in a display titled Empathy.
The black-and-white photos, accompanied by recorded interviews with the quintet, are meant to capture “the true spirit of Excela's patients,” revealing them as “more than just their disease or injury,” the display notes. A similar exhibit featuring five other patients was installed last year in the renovated lobby of Mt. Pleasant's Excela Square at Frick hospital.
Grill is a self-taught photographer who usually focuses on landscapes, flora and architecture. Like many other medical specialists, he sees his patients less frequently than if he were their primary care physician — so he was inspired to learn more about their lives and to preserve their images.
Eyth agreed to be photographed last summer after talking with the cardiologist about his work as a blacksmith.
“He told me I had an interesting face,” Eyth recalled. “I had like a 5-inch mustache,” which he grows out to coincide with his annual participation in the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival — where he demonstrates his smithing skills and sells his wares. “Right now, it's a third that long.”
Of his inclusion in the Unity medical center display, Eyth said, “That's cool. It's an honor. I'm surprised this is even happening.”
After his heart attack, Eyth had three stents placed in his major coronary artery. But, he said, “It didn't stop or slow me down much. They wanted me to take it easy for a month or two.”
The pace of production at Eyth's forge has slowed some, mainly because his son doesn't participate as much, he said. But his 14-year-old grandson, Joe, has stepped in to help fill the gap.
“We're still turning out 120 to 130 knives in a year,” said Eyth, who puts some of his knives to use when he hunts deer.
“I don't move as quick as I used to, but I'm 67,” Eyth pointed out.