For years my efforts at the gym were treadmill exclusives, and indeed, I had achieved impressive numbers for someone my age. At 65 I could run for 27 minutes straight at 6.5 miles an hour. I attended the gym not to look good, but to keep my heart healthy. I intended to defy my familial history (my mother also had a heart attack in her 60s, but I attributed that one to her lifelong tobacco addiction). Studies had shown that people who ran 10 to 15 miles a week could extend their lives by an average of five years or so, and that sounded like a pretty good time investment to me.
On November 12th, 2014, however, I was three years removed from the fitness I had attained at age 65. Despite continued regular attendance at the Y, my numbers had been declining. At the age of 65 I could burn 500 calories and cover four miles in 40 minutes. On that particular evening last November, however, I was defeated after 20 minutes and 115 calories. As in the recent past, a choking sensation in my throat forced me to slow down, then to stop. Afterward I sat on a bench dejected, thought about why I couldn’t come close to what I had so easily achieved just a few years earlier, and attributed my performance to a bad day. Everyone has them, right?
Two days later, I flew to London with my girlfriend. We sightsaw the city, and I played in the World Scrabble Championship. On four or five occasions over the ten-day trip, particularly when I had to ascend stairs, I became extremely winded. For the first time ever, my affliction had affected me outside of the gym. I went online, learned about unstable angina. One didn’t have to feel chest pain to have it. The pain could be referred pain—for example to one’s throat. I learned that unstable angina is dangerous as hell.
I returned to Canada on the evening of November 24th, took a shower that night, went to sleep, and awoke at around 2:30 A.M. feeling panicky. I took my blood pressure: 170/110. Measured it a second time: 160/100, a minimal improvement. Then I did something completely out of character. I packed up some clothes and a bathroom bag, got in my car, and drove to Emergency at the Sir Mortimer Davis Jewish General Hospital.
I figured they would release me in time to teach my Psychology of Music class that afternoon. Surely some doctor would give me digitalis or nitrates, anything so that I could get through the last two weeks of my last semester before my retirement. Wrong. I was given a blood test. This was followed by a cardiologist’s visit and a stress test, the results of which were so bad that the cardiologist, Dr. Vartan Mardigyan, told me that I was going nowhere anytime soon.
“But what am I going to do for the rest of the day?” I asked him.
“Recuperate from the stress test. Tomorrow is your angiogram.”
A surgeon, Dr. Yves Langlois, visited me the day after the angiogram. He told me that he would be operating on me the following morning. He had bumped me to the head of the line because the angiogram revealed a 95% blockage in the main artery leading into the left side of my heart. I had several other 70% blockages, and would require at least a quadruple bypass.
“You wouldn’t even have had a heart attack,” he told me, the inference being that at some time in the near future I simply would have died, probably in my sleep. Not a terrible way to go out, but I wasn’t quite ready for it.
With the exception of an atrial flutter episode that began on postop day two and ended while I was taking a nap two days later, just an hour before the doctors were going to try cardioversion (shock therapy to the heart) to reestablish my heart's normal rhythm, I recovered from the bypass about as well as could be expected. True, the leg from which the bypass veins were “harvested” is still a little sore and swollen, and my breastbone remains a little tender (they crack it during the operation). Nevertheless, I’m at home! With invaluable help from a few friends and family, I’ve managed.
I write this in the hope that there may be at least one person reading it who recognizes in him- or herself similar symptoms. If you do, please, don’t wait to get help! If your symptoms seem to be getting worse, go to a hospital emergency room today. If they have been stable for a while, arrange to take a stress test as soon as possible.
I learned many other things from my hospital stay, such as how wonderfully competent the orderlies, nurses, and doctors at the Jewish General are; how it helps to learn their names as quickly as possible; how you might as well pay no attention to conversations between two nurses concerning your condition, because as personal as such conversations are, they go on forever and will bore the hell out of you. Get through the nights by listening to your favourite music. Stay off the internet at night. Above all, think twice before reading Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle at 3:30 A.M. In particular, avoid reading the most terrifying passage I had ever come across in literature, in which a Mongolian soldier skins alive a Japanese agent. It’s not an effective means for overcoming hospital-induced insomnia. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a great book, however—more about it some other time.