“You might want to sit down for this.”
These are words I never care to hear again, especially from my father, who called me the other week to say the above, adding “I went to the cardiologist and he said my heart has a clogged artery. I need to have surgery to open it.”
It’s a situation that’s hardly rare. Only today, President Clinton had a stent procedure. Turns out my father was basically on the verge of a heart attack, and had been for years, with a tightness in his chest that had been misdiagnosed as gas, as anxiety.
An angioplasty was scheduled and, if it didn’t work, pops would have to be rushed into a bypass, an open-heart surgery that had risks that made my head spin and hands shake.
This was an impossible situation because my pops is a superhero and heart problems only plague mortals.
“Dad, I love you and you’ll be fine,” I managed to stutter through a cracked voice.
So Quiet You Could Hear Hearts Beating
Friday came and we were all nervous as hell. We sat in the area designated for “waiting,” and did so impatiently while trying to distract each other. We played Scrabble and Rummicub while checking the clock, which indicated that the surgery was taking longer than expected, first by 10 minutes, then 20 minutes, then by an additional hour. Still, no word from the surgeon.
My hands started shaking again, and I couldn’t get a handle on my imagination. With mom already teetering near meltdown mode, I had to get it together. “G.I.T., girl,” I repeated to myself. Get It Together. Stay calm and don’t panic unless there’s a reason to panic.
Finally, the surgeon appeared. His white outfit made him look like a butcher.
We quickly gathered around him, arms folded across our chests in a mirror image of each other, the dent in our brows creased, eyes searching his face for reassurance.
“The surgery went well,” he finally said. I let out a deep breath, it seemed like my first in days. “The surgery went well.” Mom was crying. The doc was talking, telling us about the three out of five arteries around my pops’ heart that were clogged 99%.
I wish that were a typo. They were clogged 99%. My pops is only 62. We were mortified.
“I imagine your husband has enjoyed a rich Russian diet of vodka, caviar and beef tartar for many years,” the doc told my mom, and he was absolutely right. I don’t recall seeing my pops order anything but steak at a restaurant. Nor do I recall him eating any vegetable beyond a potato, usually a baked one with his steak that’s piled high with butter and chives. Family suppers at home always feature cold cuts, cured Russian sausages, smoked fish, herring in sour cream, a cheese plate and a variety of barbecued meats. Vodka and red caviar also made an appearance.
Exercise did not. Beyond looking for the remote so he could change the channel, I’ve rarely seen my pops exert himself.
He had no hobbies that kept him active. He is not a nature guy or rugged outdoorsman. He is a sports nut with a big-screen TV and leather recliner, with which he rarely parts.
Why had I not recognized this as a problem before? Why did I need this doctor to point out the fundamentally obvious?
The doc said that pops needs to make major lifestyle changes, his diet among them. We all nodded. We are sorry it came to this. We will make it better, we promise. Pops will also need to take blood-thinning medication for the rest of his life.
One more thing, he said, before leaving us: the catheter attached to my pops’ heart during the surgery several times sucked out copious amounts of cholesterol and fat that surrounded his heart. This is a rare sight, he said. We hung our heads in shame. We are all changed people now.
But it’s not just people with a similar diet or lack of physical activity that are subject to clogged hearts. O.O. founder Jeremy shared that his dad — a lifelong athlete and health nut — had some buildup a few years ago as well. It put the fear of God into both of them . . . at least for a while, until the initial shock ran off.
It’s a lesson that even the physically fit should absorb. Yes, diet and exercise are of course of the utmost importance, but genetics are a major factor. This is something so basic to human life — make sure you have a healthy heart.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Preventative medicine — i.e., visiting your doctor regularly, even if you feel fine — is paramount as we get older. Sure, you were invincible in your twenties. In your thirties, maybe you need to be a little more cautious . . . a little less afraid of a stethoscope. Cholesterol and blood pressure levels are a little harder to tell with the naked eye than just being out of shape, after all.
We visited pops in his hospital room, where he’d be spending the night. He was awake, cheery, drinking cranberry juice and waving us all in. We huddled around him, like we usually do. He’s said he’s hungry, but only for food that’s good for him. He can live without the steak dinners. And he wants to live. My mom’s not done with him yet, she says. She ordered two rocking chairs for the porch, where they will sit and grow old together. He’s on board with that plan.
I leaned down to kiss him and stroke his graying hair. It’s thinner now. I held his hand. My superhero. he’s looking up at me, smiling, looking happy, looking different.
“Do me a favor, eh?” he said.
“Don’t get old.”