Another Perspective

A Slow Crash and Burn

Most of us have a certain image in mind of the term "heart attack."

By 12.1.08

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Most of us have a certain image in mind of the term "heart attack." We envision a grab for the left chest or upper left arm, a grimace of pain, and a collapse to the floor. "Why you have to go eatin' all that pork?" Richard Pryor's heart demands of him as it slams him down to his knees.

Mine wasn't like that. Instead, I felt a tiny irritation in my chest, but enough that it made me want to lie down on my side. Then once I lay down, my heart would stop -- literally stop. Still no real pain. I tried telling myself, "Okay, Larry, you've said you wanted to die, so just let go." Wouldn't work. Every time my heart stopped it would panic me and I'd sit back up to find myself in the same old irritation. Whereupon I'd lie down, my heart would stop, and I'd sit up in another panic.

This could have gone on for hours. I kept it up for about 45 minutes, then called 911 for my faithful EMTs from the North Andover Fire Department.


THE MAIN IRRITATION WITH THE EMTS is telling them what's going on. You can't just say, "Okay, drive me to the hospital and I'll fill in the docs." No, the faithful drivers of the medical truck have to know what's happening, too, because they might have to place an IV, a simple task which will likely save your life.

So we get this done, and get to Lawrence General, our local hospital, and find a sharp young resident who realizes this situation is beyond is powers, his equipment, and his expertise. He gives me a shot of morphine laced with Atavan -- mmmm! -- and sends me by fast ambulance to the great central workhouse for coronary bypass operations, Brigham & Women's Hospital in central Boston.

There I get what is called a "CABBAGE," short for "coronary arterial bypass graft." I can't say for sure, but I believe I'm part of a class of some dozen or more patients who are being grafted that night. I get the basic: a triple bypass, where the docs peel a long vein from the inside of a leg, then fashion a three-part veinous crown to replace the old coronary arteries, which have failed through clogging or some other mechanism.

They split your chest right down the middle of the breastbone -- most of us have seen scars like this. From the inside, it's about as bad as you can imagine. A nurse explains to me that the breastbone is naturally flexible, but that, once it's cut and stitched back together, it has to be unnaturally stiff just to hold everything in place.

Result? You can't breathe. Not for weeks, you can't breathe. You gasp and suck at the oxygen hose, and you still can't breathe, then one day about a month out, you manage one genuine breath. And then it gets better and better, very gradually.


I PICTURE MY CHEST AS THE CLASSIC faux photo of Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, with three big loops sticking up. I've been in three different hospitals so far, all adding a bit more to my recovery. Sally has read me the riot act. No more smoking, no more isolating in my tiny kingdom of sleeping pills and pain relievers. This literally tears at my heart, that I should have blown 23 years of sobriety on pills.

But I did. No denying it. I'll be back at my desk in a couple of weeks. For now, I'm just terrorizing a nurse by typing on her computer. Maybe I'll get one more column in before my discharge. We'll see.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.