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The man behind the vulture: Bloomsday icon returns after pandemic, heart bypass

Bill Robinson, the man who has dressed up each Bloomsday in a large, looming vulture costume, will be back this Sunday on his perch at the top of Doomsday Hill. Robinson recently recovered from a bypass surgery and is looking forward getting back out on the course.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

Bill Robinson has been enjoying his revenge for 35 years.

In 1985, he designed and built a 7-foot-tall preying mantis for a Halloween costume contest.

He lost to, of all things, a guy who impersonated KISS bassist Gene Simmons.

He wanted revenge, and in 1986, he harkened back to a childhood experience to dream up his scary costume.

Lying in the woods one day as a child, Robinson remembers a buzzard circling him overhead, as if pondering whether Robinson had a pulse or would make for good meal.

Robinson put that impression into his art and this time made a 7-foot-tall turkey vulture costume for the same Halloween contest he’d come in second place for the year before. It was menacing: scary talons, skulls and worms were attached to the feathers. It’s eyes glowed with lights.

He won the costume contest.

Showing up to Bloomsday in the costume, which takes up the better part of a garage bay, was more of a joke in 1987.

“It was way more of a sensation than I could have ever imagined,” Robinson said.

He made the news that year, and since then at the top of Doomsday Hill, Robinson has become a permanent fixture for people to look forward to as they climb the hardest part of the more than 7-mile course.

Over the years, Robinson made the vulture less scary and more approachable, with fewer skeletons and a friendly yellow beak.

The pandemic ended a 32-year tradition for Robinson, as the Bloomsday race was canceled and went virtual in 2020 and 2021. This year, however, Robinson is ready to return to Doomsday Hill.

There was a point last year when Robinson might have been unable to continue the tradition.

Last summer, Robinson was more tired and fatigued than normal. Simply bringing in the groceries from the car was enough to make him need to lie down. He knew something was wrong.

Initially, he did not even consider a heart condition could be causing the symptoms, especially because he never experienced chest pain and had clean electrocardiograms in past years.

Robinson thought his symptoms were stemming from a lump in his esophagus that he got removed, but after meeting with a cardiologist, he found out much more.

The echocardiogram his cardiologist ordered proved that Robinson’s heart needed help.

“My heart showed four complete blockages – it looked like the Colorado River with four dams across it,” Robinson said.

Thankfully, Robinson avoided a heart attack and was scheduled instead for a bypass surgery in August.

The result was almost instantaneous when he woke up.

“I could feel circulation in places I couldn’t feel it in years: my feet were pink instead of gray,” Robinson said. “I could feel circulation, and it was just the most awesome feeling in the world.”

Robinson’s bypass surgery helped improve his circulation, but his clogged arteries remain.

Dr. Sean Spangler, a cardiologist at Providence Spokane Heart Institute, said that Robinson’s blockages were in his major blood vessels, meaning there is a good chance that if he hadn’t sought help eventually, he likely could have developed more severe consequences, potentially having a heart attack.

The success of the bypass surgery in a patient like Robinson has come a long way, Spangler said, noting that there was about a 99% chance he would do well.

The procedure restores blood flow to the heart by taking blood vessels from the chest and legs and using them to bypass where the other vessels are blocked.

“He had a tremendous outcome, and most people have a good outcome with bypass surgery these days,” Spangler said.

Heart disease requires continuous treatment and after surgery, recovery.

Preventing further plaque buildup and more blockages is the medical goal, Spangler said, to keep the patient stable going forward.

Both exercise and diet play a role in not only recovery, but continued treatment of heart disease.

Robinson was determined to get better in time for Bloomsday this year, and when he got to St. Luke’s in November, that was what he told providers there.

He diligently walked on a treadmill with a pulse oximeter attached to his finger as he kept his heart rate at just the level his cardiologist recommended.

For three months, he went to rehabilitation classes a few times a week, barely missing a class.

“We were teaching him what to monitor outside of class, but when we had him for three months, we tried to push him where he could in a monitored environment to make sure we’re not seeing anything abnormal that would be unsafe,” said Laura Wambold, lead exercise physiologist at St. Luke’s cardiac rehabilitation department.

Of course, the goal was Bloomsday, which means Robinson standing upright for at least four hours, with some weight on his shoulders as the vulture costume requires.

It’s actually quite cool inside the vulture costume, he said. He has 6-inch fans inside that help blow up the wings and keep him cool, but the actual costume is quite heavy.

Robinson continued his exercise work beyond St. Luke’s at home. He is diligent about walking on the treadmill every day, monitoring his heart rate to not under- or overstress it.

He has been cleared by his physicians to do Bloomsday this year. This week, he began dusting off the costume and doing some fine-tuning .

Wambold, who runs the race, plans to give Robinson a high-five and take a selfie with him when she gets up Doomsday Hill on Sunday with her family.

For Robinson’s part, his stamina is the best it’s ever been. He’s ready for Sunday.

“I feel the best I’ve felt in 10 years,” he said.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.