Like a lot of people, my husband, Gerry, and I lived under the blissful delusion that we were too young to have serious health concerns. Torn muscles and back injuries, maybe, but that was because we were active boomers. Then reality struck.
Eighteen months ago, six days after our second child went off to college, on a hot Saturday afternoon, Gerry went to the gym and hit the elliptical trainer. He was a man who watched what he ate all week long so that on weekends he could indulge in sauce-drenched main courses accompanied by fine red wines and lavish desserts. He figured that if he splurged only on weekends, and worked out regularly, he was OK. A lifelong athlete with a family history of longevity, his cholesterol was a comforting 160, and he’d had a stress test two years earlier.
Midway through his normal cardio workout, however, he suddenly became profoundly fatigued. He called it quits, and headed home. During the 15-minute drive, he experienced intense heartburn, and both arms began to feel heavy, he said, as if he had lifted large weights. Uncertain if the feeling was cardiac or indigestion, he swigged some Pepto-Bismol and took two aspirin. Every doctor says those two aspirin saved his life.
When I came home with our other two children 45 minutes later, I found Gerry lying down. Not wanting to overreact by rushing him to the E.R., I called my physician father. He said that Gerry, who had recently turned 50, should get an EKG. Flags were beginning to wave. We called a cardiologist friend, Dr. Aaron Berman, and he urged me to get Gerry to Beaumont Hospital right away. There, the emergency room staff whisked him away before I even had the car parked. Preliminary tests were negative.
Berman stopped in about 8 p.m. and persuaded Gerry to stay overnight for observation, wanting him to have a nuclear stress test the next morning. Gerry, a type-A+ personality, absolutely did not want to stay. After all, our schedule was full the next day, much less the next week. Berman, in his low-key manner, didn’t take no for an answer. The test was scheduled for 9 the next morning, and I left at around 10:30.
Gerry called at 5:15 a.m., telling me his stress test had been canceled, because his blood enzymes had been elevated, and he had had a heart attack. He was going to need a heart catherization.
Here was the next big surprise. Gerry had a 95-percent blockage of the left anterior descending artery, the main artery of the heart. Berman inserted a medicated stent.
Marc Sakwa, a cardiothoracic surgeon and a good friend, observed the procedure. He pulled me aside, and explained that the left anterior descending artery has a nickname: “The widow maker, because this is the one you usually drop dead from.”
Why was Gerry spared? We have no idea. Maybe it was the two aspirin he took. Maybe the blockage moved a little within him and didn’t block the artery long enough. He actually came to the hospital when he had symptoms. Or, as some people have said, it just wasn’t his time.
But our lives, and our perception of our lives, have been permanently altered. I was 46 at the time, with two children in college and one in middle school. I was looking forward to growing old with Gerry; we had just celebrated our 25th anniversary, and had cleared many of the hurdles that many marriages encounter when raising young families. I truly could not imagine becoming a widow. I was not ready for a life without him.
Fear can either be debilitating or motivating. Gerry was very frightened; he did not want friends, professional associates, or clients to know, worrying they would perceive him as feeble. As word trickled out, he discovered that rather than thinking he was less than a dynamo, people were concerned about him. We were flooded with calls, visits, and gifts. He also was in denial; he wanted nothing to change, from his high-powered workdays to his leisure lifestyle. He attended cardiac rehab, where he learned he was actually working out at too high an intensity level. He initially fought the nutritional and diet changes. But chopped liver would be off future holiday menus. Vegetables sautéed in olive oil are great. Driving Telegraph could not be a competitive sport. He had to learn how to relax.
My fear was that he would have another heart attack. I would lie awake at night listening for each breath, afraid I hadn’t heard him snoring. Each time the phone rang, I would catch my breath for half a second before answering. I still do.
I felt an overpowering need to keep him safe. I took a large garbage bag and went through our kitchen, reading every label. During my purge, I filled the bag with margarine, cheeses, snack foods, meats, cookies, crackers, mayonnaise, even “low-fat” items, which, upon reading, were filled with saturated and trans-fats. The jar of gourmet pasta sauce? It had 12 grams of fat! I was furious. I changed recipes. I created a healthful, and very flavorful, way for our family to eat. It was one way I could feel in control.
Now, most of the time, we can exhale. The worst almost happened, and we managed. We had to edit our lives, but we’re hardly finished. It allowed Gerry the opportunity to re-evaluate his career and take different steps, reducing some stress and reinvigorating him. We dance at parties. We share a filet once in a while. We laugh. And, I think, we appreciate each other a little more. Because we know what we almost lost.