Keep open minded about your heart

Not a Moment Too Soon, I Thought of Tim Russert



Published: July 8, 2008

Most Saturday mornings, I bicycle with a group of men, mostly in their 50s, whom I affectionately call the Cheat Death group. We are all in pretty good shape, competitive but supportive, and convinced that hard-core exercise is our ticket to postponing the inevitable.

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The ride a few Saturdays back was a tough one. At 6:30 a.m., the pack took off fast and immediately headed for the hills near Durham, N.H. The first few climbs felt pretty good, but by the third hill I started to feel nauseated.

Figuring that was probably a result of the four beers and large Chinese dinner the night before, I kept going. Twenty-five miles into the ride, I had fallen to the back of the pack. I was short of breath and wondering how I was going to make it much farther.

I am someone who hates to quit. But after the third time the group had to stop and wait for me, I decided I had no choice. I watched them pedal away, then lay down in the grass.

I was angry and scared. For the first time my body had given out on me, and I had no clue what was going on. Besides the nausea, my only symptoms were a persistent cough and an overwhelming feeling that something was not right.

I called my wife and got a ride home.

After showering, I lay down in bed and started thinking. Though I am a 50-year-old guy with a stressful job and a little too much around the middle, I had a clean bill of health. I had good cholesterol numbers and a great doctor, and recently I had passed a cardiac stress test.

That’s when Tim Russert popped into my head. In the last couple of weeks, like almost every middle-age man, I had taken a very personal interest in every detail of his story. Yes, he was overweight. But hadn’t he just passed a stress test?

That’s when the light went on. I bolted out of bed, went to the computer and Googled “How do you know you are having a heart attack?” The first Web site that popped up was a list of warning signs from the American Heart Association. As I read on, I started to sweat.

Nausea.” Check.

Shortness of breath.” Check.

Chest discomfort.” Perhaps, though it really didn’t feel like much.

Ignoring the Web site’s advice to call 911 (I was too vain to have an ambulance pull up to my house), I drove to the hospital.

When I stepped up to admissions desk the nurse asked why I was there. “Mild chest pains,” I said. “How old?” she asked. “Fifty,” I replied.

She nonchalantly turned to the orderly and said, “Hey, Lenny, we got another one.” I guess many men, stunned by Mr. Russert’s sudden death, were doing just the same thing I was.

A doctor attached some wires to my body and conducted a quick EKG. “Mr. Bicks,” he said minutes later, “you are suffering a heart attack.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” he answered, then produced those squiggly lines on the graph paper. I swore. Then I called my wife and I started to cry.

This is one of those times that defines your life, like the death of a parent or the birth of a child. In a split-second, you cross the invisible “before and after” line and realize that nothing is ever going to be the same. For that moment my life had been removed from my hands. But I kept thinking, I’m supposed to be invulnerable. I’d passed a stress test, drank red wine, used a lot of olive oil, exercised like an insane person. This could not possibly be happening to me.

The doctor took out a large needle full of a sedative. The rest is a blur: a trip in an ambulance to a larger hospital, sirens blaring, an hour on the table in a cath lab, a stent implanted to open the blocked artery, my wife crawling tearfully into my bed to give me a hug, a doctor showing me before-and-after pictures of my artery, and losing his temper when I asked when I might return to work.

As in Tim Russert’s case, there were no warning signs. No sign I was suffering from coronary artery disease. A piece of plaque in one of my arteries just broke off and created a massive blood clot. When it did, I suffered a severe heart attack. If I had not gone to the hospital, I might very well have died.

Because at the right moment I thought of Tim Russert, I am one of the lucky ones. I get to hug my wife and my kids, understand how wonderful my friends are and realize exactly how much I love my life. It is a debt I can never repay.


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