I spent close to twenty-four years with my father’s heart condition. And some years before that with other medical problems. I saw him go through several heart attacks, triple bypass surgery, the insertion of stents and two ablation procedures.
Years later, after he seemed long out of crisis, he had a final heart attack. He died suddenly in his driveway, and I was stunned despite all that had happened before.
Through it all, my father had seemed to trust doctors. He generally took their advise, and submitted to their procedures.
I didn’t have such trust. I wanted to take after my maternal ancestors. My maternal grandparents, both Irish, avoided doctors like the plague. It’s clear that my grandfather died because he would not attend to his developing medical problems.
But my grandfather’s family had good walkers. They lived long lives, maintaining much of their health through vigorous walking.
Using a regimen that included running, I strove to do the same. Sometimes, when I made an occasional visit to a medical office, I would be told my blood pressure was too high. Yet even then, I vowed I could do it without doctors.
Still, I didn’t make inroads. I couldn’t lose weight. Even with all my exercise. As a teenager, I had been able to eat humungous amounts of food without gaining weight. There was no reason, I kept telling myself, I should not still be able to do this.
I ran out of time. One night last July, I had terrible headaches that seemed to go through my entire body. I took aspirin, and the pain stopped.
Then, about two o’clock in the morning, the pain resumed. Still running through me. I didn’t sleep the rest of the night.
I got dressed that morning feeling terrible. I wondered if I would ever feel well again. I dragged myself through some morning activities, then met my wife at a restaurant for lunch.
We ordered our meal. I told my wife I was not feeling well. I felt lightheaded. For a moment, I felt nauseous. My wife said I was sweating.
I headed for the men’s room. I had some idea I would lie on the men’s room floor a while.
Then I felt nothing until I heard my wife calling to me. I had lost consciousness, crashing on the floor.
I started talking and even joking to show I was all right, but the restaurant manager had called 9-1-1. When the medics came, I talked lightly with them. I had passed out from dehydration twenty years before on a trip up to Vermont, and I said dehydration had gotten to me again.
I asked to be taken to St. Joseph’s simply because it was the nearest hospital. In the emergency room, tests were taken. I told a nurse that I was suffering from dehydration.
But a young nurse practitioner came in and said the tests indicated a blockage. When I gave her a probably angry look, she said, “I always have to give the bad news.”
A few moments later, a cardiologist informed me that I had had a small heart attack. He said a catheterization was needed. When he explained when the lab would be available, my wife wisely said it should be done that afternoon.
I was wheeled to the lab. I was told that bypass surgery might be necessary if blockages had been there a while.
I was awake throughout the procedure. The doctor gave me moment-by-moment accounts of what he was finding and doing. Fortunately, bypass surgery wasn’t necessary. The doctor was able to insert two stents.
I spent two days in the hospital, and worked part-time eight weeks after that. I was glad that St. Joseph’s has a world-class cardiology unit, but my view of my physical self was shaken, perhaps permanently. I am taking medicine, several pills a day. And I learned to trust doctors a bit, although I insist on having the best ones.
It hasn’t been all smooth. An attempt at cardiac rehab was a big frustration. The staff at the rehab center kept worrying over my blood pressure.
But my blood pressure now seems to be under control, and I am losing weight. I’ve finally admitted that I can no longer eat the amounts I inhaled as a teenager.
I’m doing aerobic exercise at the gym, and a big chunk of my physical self-confidence has returned. For months I put off several plans, with the thought that these plans might come to nothing. Yet recently I have gone forward with them. The future’s length is a big question, but it always is for everyone.
I often wonder now how it was for my father when he went through his heart problems. I wish he were still around to talk about this with.
But in some ways, he still is. My father took life one day at a time, and I’ve been learning to do the same.