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Tales of the Heart

I wrote this piece and sent it out as e-mail after I had a small heart attack in July of 1995. I figured that it would be better for me to tell people what had really happened rather than have them hear about it through rumor.

July 25, 1995


You might have heard by now that I’ve been ill over the past week; many of you have called or sent e-mail with your questions. To all of you, let me first say thanks for your concern. I am feeling better now, though it was a pretty scary situation for a while there. I’ve had a minor heart attack. But I’m OK now.

Here’s what happened: About 7AM last Thursday, I was woken by a severe pain in the middle of my chest, underneath my breastbone. The pain radiated down my arms and legs, and my hands were tingling. I was clammy, nauseous, and white as a sheet, too. I stumbled into the bathroom, where Dori had just stepped into the shower.

“Dori,” I croaked. “I don’t feel very good.” To punctuate the remark, I cleverly hit the floor like a bag of rocks. Dori jumped out of the shower.

“What’s wrong?”

“Uhhh….my chest hurts.”

“Should I call the paramedics?” In just a moment, the thoughts went through my brain. Was this really bad? What if it turned out to be nothing special? What if I did the dumb macho thing, said, “No, don’t bother,” and died? I answered Dori, “Yes, call the paramedics.”

I believe that she next did a standing broad jump from the door of our bathroom, over the bed, to the night table where the phone is. I was busy crawling back to the bed, where I thudded onto my back (that hurt, too). The Culver City paramedics showed up very quickly (thanks, guys!), slammed on an oxygen mask and a heart monitor, and transported me to Daniel Freeman Hospital in Marina del Rey. I’m still hurting pretty bad; between 7AM and 11AM, Dori tells me they gave me five shots of morphine, and I kept shaking them off. It’s not even like I was in training, like in the 70’s, either.

Now, the really annoying stuff begins. They take my EKG. It’s completely normal. They do an echocardiogram, a cool ultrasound thing where you can watch your own heart beat in real time. That’s normal too. So what happened? The cardiologist comes in. He tells me he doesn’t think I had a heart attack. First, at 38, I’m too young. Second, my tests are coming up normal. His theory : Attack of the Killer Heartburn. Uh, OK. But what about that shooting pain, etc.? “Sometimes, heartburn is that bad.” OK, I did eat two Ball Park Franks for dinner about 10:30 PM the night before, so maybe the Hot Dog Heartburn theory cuts the mustard.

They decide to keep me for observation (not the first agency to have done so, but that’s another story), and in the next bed is a charming man who’s had a mild stroke. In talking with him, his wife and son, I discover they’ve just bought a Performa 6115CD and a PowerBook 520c. They shamelessly pump me for Mac info; I cunningly sell them on a membership in the Los Angleles Macintosh Group.

Along about 11PM Thursday night, my blood enzymes come back in from the lab. Guess what they say, kids? This guy is having a heart attack! Like, duh. The Freeman folks rush in and transfer me into their CCU (Cardiac Care Unit), where I spend a restless evening.

My hospitalization insurance (Cigna) isn’t affiliated with Daniel Freeman, so the next morning, about 11 AM, I’m transferred via ambulance to Good Samaritan Hospital’s CCU. A doctor whose name I can never quite understand (He’s tall, French Canadian, drop-dead gorgeous with piercing blue eyes, and talks fast; it’s clear that most women would be quite happy to have his godlike children. Next to this guy, I feel like a swarthy, wizened homunculus. If he weren’t saving my life, I’d probably hate him.) explains to me that he thinks that I have had a “leetle heart attack,” and that they want to do an angiogram to confirm.

“Fine,” I say. “When?”

“Oh, ‘ow about one ‘o clock?” he replies. My dance card was free.

They zip me down to the cardiac cath lab. If you don’t know what an angiogram is, here’s the basics: They thread a couple of long, thin catheters into the major vein and artery in your groin and snake them up into your heart. Then they squirt x-ray contrast medium through the catheters; where it doesn’t go through, there’s a blockage. Where there’s a blockage, they can do an angioplasty, where they first ream out the blocked artery, then insert a balloon that expands the artery to normal size. The fun part: you’re awake through this, because they have to have you cooperate in things like taking deep breaths, etc. But they’ll give you stuff to take the fear-of-death edge off.

The kindly cardiac cath nurse asked me “Tom, do you want to be sedated?” I said wittily, “Sure, I’m a Ramones fan.” Unfortunately this fell completely flat, this woman being woefully unaware of the Ramones’ classic punk-era hit “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Maybe culture is dying.

During the procedure, I mostly dozed, rousing whenever they shouted, “Tom! Hold your breath! Now breathe!” At the end of this, they showed me the before-and-after video pics of my wayward heart.

“Over here, this is your heart with a blockage.”

“And over here, this is your heart after the angioplasty.”

They both looked good to me, but heck, Joey Ramone’s voice was spinning through my brain.

When I was lucid again, Dr. Mysterious Frenchman explained that I had one small artery on the back of my heart that was blocked and subsequently cleared with the angioplasty. No heart muscle was damaged (whew! that’s the stuff they can’t fix). And that a reasonable lifestyle change, i.e., a lower-cholesterol diet, virtually any exercise (oddly enough, it turns out that answering e-mail does NOT count as an aerobic activity), losing some excess poundage, and I’ll be better than new in a fairly quick period of time.

After a few days of uneventful recovery, they let me out of the hospital, where I was greeted by 94 waiting pieces of e-mail, 17 phone messages, and a few deliveries.

Overall, I’ve come to think of the whole event as the Wakeup Call of the Gods. So now I’m awake, and it’s time to make the changes. I’ve beaten bigger challenges before. I’ve written this account to try to let everyone know what happened, and to say thanks again for the kind thoughts and support.

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