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Triumph of the Heart

Posted Feb 12 2010 4:29am

By Barbara Berkeley

The American Heart Association has designated February 12th Blog Your Heart Out Day and has asked health bloggers to write on the subject of heart health. Both Lynn and I are happy to participate. See “Lady In RedDo You Know Your Numbers?” at Lynn’s Weigh. 

Here’s my story:

My path to becoming both a doctor and a writer began one fall afternoon in 1963. JFK was President and the world seemed like a very youthfulmodern place. I had just turned 15 years old. Despite living in what seemed to be a golden timeI had two major fears: I was afraid of nuclear war for one. Everyone was in those days…the years of bomb shelters and air raid drills. My second fear was the worry that something might happen to my parents. My parents were 45 and 50 years oldand despite the fact that they both smokedthey seemed incredibly healthy. But a number of events had conspired to make me nervous. My closest cousin had lost her mother at a young age. Soon after thatmy Grandmother died of a heart attack. And most recentlya friend of mine had returned from the movies to find that her father had suffered a cardiac arrest while on the living room couch. While most adolescents have a feeling of immortalityI no longer believed that either I or my family was invincible.

On the particular day in questionmy parentsmy sister and I were eating a lunch of hamburgers and french fries at our tiny kitchen table. I remember that my father stopped in the middle of helping himself to the ketchup. He got a strange look on his face. My mother sensed something was wrong immediately and asked what was going on. My father didn’t know. He had a strange pressure in his chest though. Not a pain reallyhe said. Just a tight feeling. But within moments he began to sweat and said he was going upstairs to lie down. This was odd indeed. My father was known for bounding aroundtaking the stairs in our house two at a time. We had never seen him taken ill suddenly. My mother threw a few reassuring words our way and followed him upstairs. Within a few minutesmy mother was on the phone to our family doctor and then was hurrying out the door with my father leaning on her arm. “Dr. Shapiro thinks that Daddy may be having a heart attack,” was all she said. “I am taking him to the hospital. I’ll call you when I know what’s going on.”

My sister and I were left at home. We weren’t old enough to drive yet so we sat around waiting for the phone to ring. We were terrified. All I could think about was the night that my Grandmother had gone to the hospital with her own heart attack. At three that morningthe phone had rung. My mother had answered and I had heard her crying. My grandmother had not survived the night. From this I learned that a heart attack was a frighteningunpredictable,dangerous thing.

But my father was lucky. Dr. Shapiro decided that he had suffered only a minor heart attack. This sounded OK until my sister and I finally got to the hospital. We found my father in an oxygen tenta contraption that looked like a plastic bag with a zipper that sat around his head and shoulders. The distorted view through the plasticthe distance it put between us and the uncertainty on my father’s face started a fresh wave of worry. My mother told us that he would need to be in the hospital for a couple of weeks. This was how things were done in the 60s. A heart attack meant complete rest. There was no such thing as cardiac rehab surgical fixesor fancy medicine.

For daysI camped out in my father’s hospital roomcoming right after school and staying until visiting hours were done. My homework suffered because it was tough to concentrate. But at least I wasn’t worried about English class. Although I was taking a college prep classthe school had assigned it to a teacher who had never worked with college bound students. Her assignments tended to be boring and easy. One eveningshortly after the heart attackI sat in my father’s hospital room anxious and unable to think . I was supposed to be writing an essay entitled“Why We Study English” and it was due the next day. I opened my notebookdashed off two pages that were pretty trite and called it quits. It was the best I could muster at the time. The gist of my essay was that language was important and knowing how to use it was important too. We underestimated what we could accomplish by communicatingI wrote. To make this pointI quoted the proverb: the pen is mightier than the sword.

A couple of days passed. I went to class by day and continued my hospital vigil at night. At the end of English periodI was summoned by my teacher and asked to stay after class. My teacher took me aside. “Where did you hear the phrasethe pen is mightier than the sword?” she asked. She seemed belligerent. I couldn’t answer. It was simply a proverb I knew. I thought everyone did. (By the waythe derivation is incredibly obscure. According to Wikipedia: “The pen is mightier than the sword" is an adage coined by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839 for his play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy.)

When I could not produce a source for this quotemy teacher went on to tell me that this proved that I must have plagiarized my entire essay. In factshe claimed to have the source for the original essay and said that she could produce it. (This would have been a neat trick since the entire paper had been concocted in under 20 minutes in my father’s hospital room!!!) If I didn’t immediately fess up to my crimeshe went onI would face severe consequences. To say that I was dumbfounded is quite an understatement. I fairly sputtered. I explained about writing the essay on the fly while my father sat under the oxygen tent. She refused to believe me and also refused to produce the essay she claimed to have. InsteadI was sent directly to the school disciplinariana fearsome presence in our high school and was threatened with several months of detention. The whole matter became an escalating horror that lasted for weeks.

This incident taught me about the power of false accusationparticularly when you are in a subordinate position to the accuser. In the endthe principalmy motherand a whole cadre of my ex-teachers became involved. It was all hushed upbut the teacher was never disciplined and the incident remained an unresolved blot on my high school experience. For methe incident is inextricably bound up with the story of my father’s heart attack. While the whole mess was awful and unfairbut it became suddenly less important whenin the same English class that Novembera classmate burst through the door with the news that John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated in Dallas.

After my father came home from the hospitalmy mother decided to do whatever she could to make him well. For herthat included a complete revamping of his lifestyle. Although there was less known about the prevention of coronary disease thenmy mother was savvy enough to figure out an effective plan. Gone were the cigarettesgone were the fried foods and fatty foods. Prior to his MImy father had hated fish and refused to eat it. Now my mother became insistentand fish appeared on our menu. So did chickenwhich was a huge departure for my red-meat-eating Dad. Then there was the exercise. My mother got my father walking 2 miles a daya habit he continued well into his 80s.

My mother’s plan changed and prolonged my father’s life for surebut he remained affected by his coronary artery disease. Todaythanks to herhe is 96 but he still needed a coronary bypass operation and several stents to go this distance. Once a disease process is establishedit is easier to control than to eradicate. IronicallyI am watching an example of this principle break on CNN as I write this. Bill Clinton has just been admitted to the hospital to have stents placed in his coronaries. He needs these despite having had earlier bypass surgery. The message here is that medicine and surgeries can only get us so far. We are best off – by far – if we prevent heart disease from ever getting started. And that is quite possible. Blocked arteries are not inevitable. In factcoronary artery disease is a condition that was largely unheard of until we started eating the modern diet and stopped using our bodies to do physical work.

Prior to my father’s heart attackI thought the world was fair. After my father’s illness and my plagiarism experienceI found out that fairness was not guaranteed. But through my mother’s interventions with my fatherI learned that there was hope. You could do something to help yourselfto change the odds. I became interested in medicine and in finding waysas my mother hadto prolong life through disease prevention. Rather than being discouraged from writingthe false accusation emboldened me to use writing to get a bigger voice. So I suppose you might say that these two experiences converged and started me on the path that led to this very moment. Here I amwriting to people all over the world about heart disease.

So what can we do about coronary disease? First and foremostwe should try to prevent it from happening in the first place. Heart attacks occur when the small vessels that feed our heart become inflameddamagedand blocked. To avoid thiswe should keep our waistlines trim (fat around the middle secretes chemicals that start off inflammation in our vessels and promote coronary blockage). We should eat a diet that does not resemble the standard American diet. Mediterranean is good. Ancient may be even better. If our cholesterol numbers are highwe shouldn’t fear taking medicine. Cholesterol lowering drugs are among the safest and they also decrease vessel inflammation. We should do everything we can to avoid damage to our precious arteries. Damage comes from sugar that is too high (above 100 when you’ve fasted overnight)from blood pressure that is too high (in the 120s or below is best) and from blood fats (cholesterol and triglycerides) that are too high. We should make physical activity a priority. Our heart is a muscleand like all muscles it benefits from a work out.

On this Blog Your Heart Out Dayplease join me in thinking about ways that you can treat your heart better. Find ways to encourage the same changes in those you love. And share the word. Thanks Momfor figuring this out 47 years ago. And thanksDaddy for following the program.

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