One more "family education" night to go. Scheduled for next Wednesday, it will satisfy our commitment to attending three such evenings. Unfortunately, the driving force behind this program, Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, is not able to lead next Wednesday's session. Laid low by a heart attack, he has been "resting at home" for the past several weeks. Word on the street is that from his convalescent bed he is fending off relentless attempts by co-workers and friends to get him to effect radical change to his diet and lifestyle.
When I have my heart attack -- according to the very nice doctor we used to go to in Seattle, it's "when" not "if," I hope I will be amenable to suggested lifestyle changes. First we'd have to figure out exactly what those changes would be. The last time I went to see Dr. Felicia Sterman, our present doctor here in San Francisco, I told her, in an attempted to suck up and prove that I'm not a bad patient, that I would "change my diet" after registering cholesterol over 200 despite the presence of very strong (and beautifully-advertised) cholesterol-battling drugs. "Don't bother," she said while writing out a perscription for even stronger cholesterol-battling drugs.
There was a time -- about seventeen years ago, the first time someone measured my cholesterol, thus beginning the end of me doing whatever I wanted and not worrying about how it would play out several years down the line -- when the idea of actually having a heart attack was preposterous. Twenty-eight-year-olds don't have heart attacks unless they've got something seriously wrong with their plumbing or have been mainlining serious recreational drugs for an extended period of time. Those chest pains I periodically had were due to anxiety, the unwelcome partner of poor career decisions and a genetic predisposition to worrying.
There was one time, after a few weeks of these pains, that I actually went to a cardiologist. I'd started with our GP, who uttered the now-famous line that opens this digression. That was after she said the second-most frightening thing anyone's ever said to me. "You're not a hypochondriac," she told the 29-year-old me, handing me a referall to a cardiologist.
The scariest thing anyone ever said to me came a few years later, while getting an MRI of my brain at California Pacific Medical Center's cancer center. While giving my info to the admitting nurse, I said, "I don't plan on coming back here ever."
"That's what everyone says," she said. Nice bedside manner.
Back in 1994, I was sitting at the crossroads of an unimpressive life. One year short of thirty, I was an office temp, cranking out unprofessional, outrageous and weirdly beloved daily newsletters for a stock brokerage. My closest co-worker, John Roderick, promised me that we'd both be famous someday. So far, it's worked for him, but it's not like I'm done trying or anything.
If John and I shared anything, it was that we'd both been childhood prodigies who somehow arrived totally unprepared at adulthood. Where others had resume-building skills, we had interior libraries of useless trivia and abstract theory.
When I was a kid, my benchmarks were all based on being the youngest to ever do something. I was the youngest kid in my elementary school to do pre-algebra; I constantly maxed out whatever standardized test they put before me. Now, at 29, I was adding a dubious notch to that particular belt: I was the youngest person my cardiologist had ever put through a stress test.
They hook up a bunch of things to your chest and put you on a treadmill, gradually adding speed and incline until you're really pushing to keep up, unless you're 29 and weight 170 lbs., in which case it feels like a light workout. And if you're 29 in 1994, it feels like a light workout conducted under the same conditions present when Steve Austin began testing out his new bionic legs at the secret NASA lab.
Afterwards, the cardiologist sat us down. "Your baseline is strange," he said, "but everything else precludes you having heart disease." I exhaled. "Yet."
Fifteen years have passed. If I were to keel over while typing this, it would be very sad, sort of tragic but not beyond the scope of normal experience. "Boy, he was young," they might say. Then again, I'm only five years younger than my mom was when she had her heart attack, seven years younger than her dad was when he died of his and 11 years the junior of her brother, whose heart gave him only 56 years before cruelly and stupidly calling in its chits.
For the more pop culturally-inclined of you, John Mellencamp had a heart attack when he was 42. I hear he smokes like nobody's business, though.
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan is somewhere in his mid-50s, again no more than a decade older than me. I don't know if he was already taking so many cholesterol and blood pressure pills that he rattled when he walked like I do. This may have been the first sign that anything was amiss.
I guess if I do make it into normal old age without what is euphamistically called a "cadiac episode" it'll be because of the terrifying 308 I clocked the first time they measured my cholesterol. I don't smoke, I don't eat meat; I probably could lose about 25 pounds, though. And like I said, I've got more pills than Carter has little pills.
When I was a teenager, my line was a cavalier, "I'm going to look exactly like this until I'm 50 and then drop dead of a heart attack." Well, five years short of 50, that doesn't sound nearly as cool and fatalistic as it did then. Besides, I don't look exactly like I did then. They took my hair; you'd think they'd fudge a little, heart disease-wise, in return.
My greatest fear is that I've passed these shoddy genes onto the Jawa. So far his eyesight is perfect, but at age nine, his cholesterol was over 200. So what, he'll get a jar of Lipitor for eighth grade graduation?
I hope not. I hope by the time he's an adult they've figured out ways to lase into your chest and fix whatever's wrong in a simple, 15-minute outpatient procedure. Or they've figured out a wonder drug that completely eradicates risk factors, leaving him free to gorge on hot dogs and put as much butter on his bread as he wants.
And with that smooth and very topical segue, you may begin your healthcare debate now.