The Heart Knows

My wife had an outstanding visit with her cardiologist yesterday, which is too much information but then I have a point to make.  I don’t think she’ll mind a little invasion of privacy.

Four years ago she had a heart attack.  Just sang a high note and sent a chunk of atherosclerotic plaque heading up her left anterior descending coronary artery, which as coronary arteries go is kind of important.

It made no sense, given her lifestyle, but family history can stick like gum to your shoe, and sometimes wander into your circulation in bad ways.

She was fortunate, for several reasons.  Some impromptu vascular work-arounds formed, which can happen, feeding her heart enough blood through collaterals to keep the damage to a minimum.  She had a stent placed.  Her cholesterol and blood pressure, already perfectly normal, were tweaked by modern medicine until they became the vanguard of secondary prevention, considering that a couple of other arteries had some family history hanging around, too.

Her numbers are outstanding.  Her cardiologist is as happy as cardiologists can be, I guess.  She was disappointed in her recent stress test, feeling out of shape and lacking endurance, but as Dr. Heart pointed out, the whole idea was to stress the heart.  Hers came through with flying colors, winning medals and putting its hand over itself during the national anthem.  Forget the lab tests next visit.  Start walking if you feel out of shape.  But your heart?  In good shape.

Another reason she was fortunate is that during the work-up for this mysterious chest pain during the high note, it was discovered that she had bilateral breast cancer.  It was oh-so-early, requiring only lumpectomies and radiation therapy, although combining those two things – stent placement and the required anticoagulation with general surgery, during which one very much wants blood to be clotting normally, thank you very much – got tricky.  Doctors were talking to each other a lot.

Oh.  And MRIs were tricky, because of the metal stent, and she is required to have frequent MRIs because (hope I’m not boring you here) nine months before her heart attack she had surgery to remove a brain tumor.  You can’t make this stuff up.  You really wouldn’t want to.

One more thing.  The early signs of the brain tumor, which essentially consisted of her going blind in one eye, coincided with her job description changing and her health insurance leaving.  As you might remember from the Dark Ages, insurance companies would not sell you health insurance for preexisting conditions.  For good insurance reasons.  Not good financial reasons, not if you’re us.

And we were financially exhausted by then, by a couple of crises, one fairly minor involving my health, and one very major involving my son that was so expensive…Look.  We don’t earn that much money.  Except for a brief period in the early 1990s, when I had a business that was humming along profitably, we’ve just been a couple of people who’ve managed to keep it together by working lots of jobs, mostly self employed.  Just a couple of entertainer types who had to live in the real world like everyone else.  We could have done much smarter things, and made far fewer mistakes, but go ahead and change the past if you’re able.   I don’t really spend that much time on it.

We avoided bankruptcy through the kindness of family and friends, through the innocent prescience of buying a house in this area in the late 1980s, when houses were cheap, and through a little-known but incredibly valuable early benefit of the Affordable Care Act, long before most of it went into effect, that eventually got her (albeit very expensive) health insurance.  After the fact, of course.  Or after some facts.  After some MRIs, at least.

Old story.  Common story, even.  Forget it.  That’s just the set-up.

I will say, though, that before my wife’s medical problems, but following my son’s, I had the job of riding shotgun with my daughter as we traveled from Boston to Santa Fe, where she had a summer singing job and also was planning on getting married.  As I looked at the route, I asked that we take a little southern detour and swing by Atlanta, where several old friends lived.   Because I thought that might be as close as I’d come.

So we did, and we stayed that night with Allen and Teresa O’Reilly and their two boys, graciously putting us up for the night, saving us a hundred bucks or so, feeding my daughter some hard lemonade, which she really needed, and letting Allen and I reminiscence about our days as college roommates and actors.

I’ll link at the bottom to a column I wrote 10 years ago about Allen.  There’s a more pressing story here.

As there are pressing stories everywhere.  Here is the saving grace of living in a world in which people have it worse than you, in which people suffer and you feel helpless: Sometimes you can make a small difference in a story you know about.

You can read about the O’Reilly’s story below.  You can also read my column, and learn some history.  What none of this will tell you is that these are some of the best people I know, some of the most talented.  These are educators and actors, and trust me: These are my people.  I live in this world, or at least in the suburbs.  I am only an a casual decision away from being in their shoes.  Maybe you, too.

Lots of places and people need your help.  I can’t make that decision for you, of course, and wouldn’t want to.  I just wanted to point out a story, one that’s personal to me, for many reasons.  Bad things happen to good people.  I promise you – I promise – that good things happen also.

And sometimes your heart will surprise you.

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Learn about the O’Reillys and help here.

Read “The Sweet Swing of Success,” my column about Allen, here.

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