A heart condition is bad for your vanity, among other things...
By Ron Fried, Co-Executive Producer of Life (Part 2)
It was before 8 AM, and the doctor on the phone had some frightening information about my heart. But he was also assaulting my vanity--which proved to nearly as upsetting.
"Mr. Fried, I want you to begin taking a beta blocker and a baby aspirin every day. No more exercise for now. And we need to do more tests right away."
"No more running?"
"That's what I said. No running."
The news was entirely unexpected.
I am 53 years old and I've been a compulsively faithful jogger since before running shoes were widely available. I am six feet tall and weigh 155 pounds. Prior to this phone call, the most serious conversation I'd ever had with a doctor concerned a hamstring pull.
So yes, I was vain and I certainly was in denial.
I'd only met this doctor when he treated me for a tick bite a week or so prior to our phone conversation. The physical exam was his idea. It had been a year since my last one. The next thing I knew, he was saying, "Something's not right with your EKG. Probably nothing."
Then the blood work came back. My cholesterol was up. News from the echocardiogram was worse: a possible blockage in a coronary artery. The thallium stress test reached the same conclusion.
Was this my own fault? I like to think that my eating habits were intelligent, though not joyless. But the phrase "lotsa mayo" accurately described my approach to a can of tuna. And my wife often asked if I'd considered "putting a little bread on my butter." Still, fast food had never passed my lips, and I ate approximately one steak every decade or so.
Had I buttered my way into a heart condition? My parents are both alive and well in their mid-eighties. But my maternal grandfather died of congestive heart failure at the age of 71. Did I inherit his bum ticker?
I decided to get a second opinion, and I quickly found a doctor whose resume appealed to my aforementioned vanity. He was two years ahead of me at Columbia--and went on to Harvard Medical School. More importantly, he possessed a fine sense of irony and inspired confidence.
"I'm scared," I told him as soon as I sat down in his office.
He studied my test results and said, "There's a fifty percent chance this is nothing."
A CT Angiogram, alas, showed a significant build-up of plaque in one artery.
Soon the chest pain started. Whether it originated in my heart or in my psyche, I'll never know. But I can report that being forced to take a cab for a four-block trip had a brutal effect on the self-image of a man who, a few weeks earlier, had boasted of running eight-minute miles.
I was certainly the slimmest fellow waiting to get a coronary stent at 8AM at the Columbia Presbyterian cardiac catheterization lab. Still, if I had to be in a hospital, I was glad this was the one. Columbia Presbyterian, after all, is where Clinton and Letterman had their by-pass surgeries. It's sad but true, for a talk show producer like me, the A-list bookings provided a measure of comfort. At least I was at the table with the big boys --Bill and Dave-- even if it was at the sort of party I never wished to attend. I thought of a Hollywood friend who once boasted of being examined by Cher's gynecologist. Only the best! Name-dropping, I suppose, knows no boundaries.
I was awake throughout the procedure, though fairly stoned thanks to a potent intravenous drip. I knew that delicate medical instruments were traveling through an artery in my groin and into my heart; that a tiny balloon was pushing the offending plaque against the arterial wall; and a mesh stent was being inserted to hold the plaque at bay. But it all seemed like a not particularly frightening dream.
My doctor later reported that the artery had been 80% closed. Did he think the problem was the butter or my genes? Most likely genetic, he said.
Still, as I looked around the cardiac wing of the hospital, part of me thought: What am I doing here with all these fat guys?
Rich people tend to be slimmer and fitter than poor people, after all. And while I am by no means rich, I write novels and produce TV shows, so I sometimes feel rich if only because I dwell in the suburbs of two glamorous industries. Being slim and in good shape added to the delusion that I was somehow protected. As long as I could wiggle into the latest styles at Barneys, I thought, nothing could be seriously wrong with my health.
Now, as my ego and my heart recover, I like to think I've been wised up.
Ron Fried, co-executive producer of Life (Part 2), is the author of one book of nonfiction and two novels. His work as television producer has earned five New York Emmy Awards.