DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME
Something was wrong. Still, I kept asking questions, taking notes. I was weak, sweating, my breathing labored. Desperate to sit down. But there was work to be done, a deadline, and so I kept at it.
There had been a shooting overnight in a residential neighborhood on Chicago’s Northside, a part of town where crime of any kind was unusual, and I was talking to those who lived on the street where a man had been shot. My editor called. He wanted something on the story for the top of the hour newscast on the radio station where I had been freelancing. After completing the interviews, I leaned against the outside of my car to write my report on my notepad and edit the recording. Heavy sweat rolled over my temples, and my chest began to cramp and tighten.
I sent the story to my editor and told him I needed to end my day. I was not well.
To drive myself home was my intention, but I could proceed only a few blocks at a time, pulling over to rest my head on the steering wheel. After a deep breath, one taken with alarming difficulty, I turned the car back on the road and knew then that I would not be going home.
In the hospital emergency room, two young doctors stood over me, both half my age. One with a clipboard, the other poking and prodding, listening to my chest through a stethoscope as I lie in bed.
“We think you’re having a heart attack,” he said, smiling. “But you came in at the right time. You’re a poster child for what you’re supposed to do.”
Oddly, the news did not alarm me. Maybe it was the doctor’s unexpected smile. Maybe I didn’t fully understand. Maybe the reality of a heart attack made no sense. It should have. My father suffered one that nearly killed him when he was my age, exactly my age. Fifty-six. When he first had pain in his chest, he dismissed it as simple indigestion caused by eating a breakfast sweet roll too quickly. In hours, he was in an operating room, being prepped for bypass surgery. Someone has a heart attack in the United States every 40 seconds. He had been one of them. And now, I was one of them, too.
As nurses wheeled my bed down the hall to the room where doctors would insert a stent in my heart, I telephoned my then girlfriend, telling her where I was and what was about to happen. I asked her not to worry and to call my sons. Let people know. I wanted them to know.
The surgeon asked if I wanted to watch.
“I can do that?” I asked.
Through the groin, a probe was inserted and snaked through my upper leg to my chest to my heart. On the equipment’s monitor I could see the gray shadow of my pumping muscle and the surgeon’s instrument.
“In a moment, you’re going to feel a lot better,” he said.
With uncanny precision, he cleared the plaque and inserted the stent. I could see it happening, all in shades of grays, as if watching one of the early video games one played from a primitive black-and-white electronic console.
“How’s that feel?” he asked.
Transformed and still alive.
Heart attacks are America’s number-one killer. They happen when blood flow to the heart is suddenly blocked, the heart is denied oxygen, and if not treated quickly, the heart muscle begins to die. With immediate treatment, you may be able to prevent or limit the damage. Most people who have one survive. I was lucky. No damage. I was given no restrictions. Just a few weeks of rest. But what had happened that day would stay with me for a long time.
About a month after surgery, during a follow-up with the doctor, I told him I had been out on my bike.
“Is it bad that I rode 12 miles the other day?” I asked.
“You did, what?”
Maybe a little early to do that, he said, hesitating slightly, seemingly to be sure he was addressing my question in a measured tone. But I felt fine, I told him. Just be careful, he said.
Living was what I was determined to do. Holding on tight to the years that remained was everything. Some would see the heart attack as a wake-up call, a reminder of the human will. And it was, and it is for many who struggle moving on after a health scare. I didn’t initially find myself in that category. Instead, I carried on a bit too bravely, unknowingly attempting to ignore the fragility of life. What I needed more was phycological healing, the awakening to the clarity of life’s most precious purpose. I was detecting more lines on my face. More gray in the remaining hair. I would now be taking more medication. But I keep climbing the mountain, believing the view must get better with each step. What does one do with what you see from way up here? Do you simply take a photograph, or do you dive into the horizon with everything you’ve got?
I didn’t think there was any real choice.