Heart Attack

Paul Lowinger


A pain was stabbing me in the back when I woke, but a moment passed before I realized I couldn't stand up.

"Argh," I cried and crawled to the phone and called my son Larry who lived in the apartment downstairs. I wondered why this pain was so much worse then previous backaches, as though an evil force had squeezed my lower back with a huge vise. Did it matter that my left side had been warmed all night by a nearby heater while my right side was cooler?

Five minutes later Larry arrived, and I felt like Robinson Crusoe rescued from a deserted island. Larry is short, muscular and serious. When he helped me stand up, the pressure in my back relaxed, yielding to a concern about an ache in my chest. I had planned to meet my daughter Leslie at her art studio at Hunter's Point so I asked my son to drive.

By the tim e we got to Hunter's Point, I took more notice of my chest pain. I tried to banish memories of my father's heart attacks, the first sending him to the hospital and the second one fatal a year later. I climbed the flight of stairs to Leslie's studio and when this left me short of breath, I knew it was a heart attack, not a chest muscle spasm.

I phoned my doctor who advised me to go to the emergency room at Presbyterian hospital. I said goodbye to Leslie and Larry drove me to the hospital conversing to distract me from my fears.

"A new UFO landing and the government cover up will be on Unsolved Mysteries tonight," he said. "Maybe you can watch it on the hospital TV."

"How could the government hide it?" I replied, wanting to evade pain and thoughts of sudden death.

"Top classified," Gary replied. "We're paying for a secret UFO area at Nellis Air Force Base in the Nevada desert."

I welcomed the distraction but I was out of my depth. At the hospital emergency room, physical examinations, laboratory tests, EKG's and x-rays lasted all afternoon. Then I was admitted with a diagnosis of myocardial infarction.

I was totally immobilized with a continuous electrocardiogram monitoring my heart and an IV for medications, alone in a room in the cardiac intensive care unit. The aching chest remained but my back was just fine.

"Why me?" I asked. I had exercised regularly, didn't smoke, ate a healthy no-meat low calorie diet, and my cholesterol was under 200. On Tuesday the chest pain subsided and the cardiologist announced, "The heart attack is under control. " On Wednesday I moved to a room on a busy ward.

I was allowed out of bed and began rehabilitation by walking hesitantly in the hall and even up a few stairs under the supervision of the exercise therapist. I worried about a future cardiac bypass operation although no one had suggested one. I tried to remain calm about the indignity of having to get up at 4:15 in the morning to be weighed. Visitors included Leslie and Larry who came and expressed concern.

I was released from the hospital on the seventh day after I passed a stress test in the cardiac laboratory. I ran as the treadmill moved ever faster and its elevation increased under the control of the cardiologist who was somber as he studied my blood pressure and EKG. I was surprised at how long and fast I could run uphill without pain but soon I was breathing hard and he stopped my sprint.

I took my heart medicines, enrolled in the cardiac rehab class and went to psychotherapy and yoga. I told my cardiologist that I wanted to live forever and he laughed, "You need an angiogram to see about your collateral circulation." Then he asked, "Did I give you my cardiac sex lecture? Sex is ok but don't overdo it and avoid an excess of food and alcohol. And since I'm your primary care doctor too, practice safe sex." It was my turn to laugh.

Four weeks passed. The phone rang on a Sunday afternoon and Larry spoke, "I threw my knee out in the garage. I can't walk." I went downstairs to his apartment where he was lying on the couch with his leg exposed and bent. He pointed to his left knee, "I knelt to reach under the car I was repairing and now I can't walk. It's locked."

I felt his knee and he yelled, "Argh, don't do that!" We agreed that he needed to go to the emergency room. He leaned on me as he hopped to my car and soon we were at Kaiser where he was examined.

"This may hurt but sometimes the damaged meniscus pops back into place," said his doctor as he twisted and pulled the leg.

Larry saw the orthopedic surgeon in a few days. He had crutches but seemed to move along faster by hopping on the go od right leg. I drove him to the hospital. I cleaned, shopped, brought in Chinese food and heated it in the microwave. I never noticed that I had made a transition from a fearful heart patient to a caretaker.

We went to a chiropractor who manipulated his left leg to no avail. At home, I twisted and pulled and applied ice packs but the inevitable operation was scheduled for three weeks after his injury. Knee surgery through the arthroscope requires only a tiny incision and is a same day affair. After a follow up visit and a few days of convalescence, Larry was walking on both legs.

We argued again about UFO's as Larry played a video tape that announced, "Alien autopsies: the government is hiding the truth about extraterrestials." I read aloud from my timely copy of the Skeptical Inquirer, "The extraterrestial's organs are not formed, they're lumps and don't correspond to the shapes of the body from which they were removed. The pathologists hold the scissors like tailors, not doctors who use the thumb and third finger."

"Who knows," he said. "Maybe the video was a scam." He drove, cooked, played music on the weekends and even repaired some cars.

Did helping Larry with his bad knee make me forget my heart condition? I don't know but it happened. But I don't like to think it took my son's knee injury to cure my cardiac neurosis.

@ Paul Lowinger 1998