The Heart (Disease) of the Matter

On May 9th, I had a stent put in my coronary artery.  For months I’ve been having out-of-breath episodes, but I thought it was just because I was getting older, and not getting enough exercise.  In the last few weeks it got worse so I went to see my doctor and she sent me for a bunch of tests that ended up with a heart cath and getting a stent.  It’s been an extremely educational month with lots of philosophical implications.

coronary-stent

Our hearts are just pumps, and our veins and arteries just hoses, but when they stop functioning, it feels very metaphysical.  To actually feel them failing is quite revealing about existence and non-existence.  I’m sure the faithful would feel heart disease as a spiritual turning point, a time to communicate with God, and contemplate life after death.  Since I’m an atheist, I contemplated non-existence and thought about physics, chemistry and biology.  The heart and circulatory system is a machine that follows the laws of physics, much like the water pump in your car.  I had a rather fundamental plumbing problem:  a blocked hose.

The first diagnostic test I had was a calcium CT scan.  I got a score of 451, which my doctor didn’t like at all.  My second test was a Thallium treadmill test, which I passed, but the photographs suggested problems.  She sent me to a cardiologist.  It took a couple of weeks to get to see a cardiologist, and that was stressful in itself.  I went to a cardiology center with 32 cardiologists and the earliest appointment I could get was two weeks.  Lots of people with heart problems out there!  Time and again I was told if I needed immediate attention to go to an emergency room.  Fixing hearts is a factory-like affair.  Don’t expect a lot of personal attention.

My advice to the young:  Eat healthy now!  Don’t break your own heart. 

My clogged arteries were my fault.   Yes, the doctors can often fix your heart problems, but if you’ve ever had to deal with an old machine with breaking parts, you know one fix is just temporary before another part will go.  A stent only squishes the plaque up against the artery wall, making more room for blood flow, it’s not a form of healing.  And you don’t get plaque in just one place, it’s all over.  I just had a blockage in two high traffic area, with one bad enough for a stent.

The stent is only part of the solution.  I now have to take a bunch of drugs.  I’ve always been horrified at the sight of elderly people worrying over their prescription medicines.  I’ve always thought being over the hill as living with lots of orange plastic bottles, and now I’m part of that demographic.  Here’s where chemistry and biology comes into this story.  Modern day medicine men are scientists.  Our bodies are biological machines they study.  Millions of chemical reactions go on within our body all the time.  Doctors work by statistical studies, and the numbers tell them that my odds of living longer are improved if I consume certain chemicals.  I can’t argue with them.  I take the drugs.

These are cold equations, indifferent to how we feel philosophical about our health situation.  I hate taking drugs!  I fear drug side effects.  I hate being depended on drugs, even though I’m am quite thankful that science created them.  I’m very lucky to have good health insurance and live in a country where these kinds of problems can routinely be fixed – if they are found in time.  A fellow computer guy died at work from a heart attack recently.

My father died at 49 on his third heart attack.  He also survived a stroke.  He chained smoked Camels, drank a lot of Seagram 7, and his standard chow was steak and potatoes.  I’ve always wondered why he didn’t try to change his lifestyle, and now I know why.  I’ve been overweight for decades.  I didn’t listen to all the warnings.  In the last few years I’ve tried to eat healthier but it’s hard.  Is comes down to this:  Do I do what I like?  Or, do I do what’s good for me?  Even when I was having trouble breathing I’d often be thinking about how I wanted junk food.  I’m pretty sure my father thought “I’d rather die than change.”  Me, I picked change – but at the last minute.  Not very wise.

Since New Year’s I’ve been reading books by Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Joel Fuhrman about using diet to reverse heart disease, and watching documentaries on Netflix about reversing chronic disease through proper eating.  Ornish’s book Program for Reversing Heart Disease came out in 1990, and Fuhrman’s Eat to Live came out in 2003.  I even read parts of Eat to Live ten years ago.  But the nightly news programs have been warning about the evils obesity for decades.  Until your heart actually sucker-punches you a good one, it’s hard to take such warnings seriously.  I should have.

My friend Mike asked me if I thought about God in the hospital.  I did, but not in the way he intended.  Feeling the closeness of mortality showed me why people pray.  The gut instinct is to think “Get me out of this!”  You want magic to work.  It doesn’t.  Thinking that an all-powerful being could rescue you is an obvious wish.  I wish there was such a personal savior, but I didn’t find one.  I knew there was a blockage in the artery going to the heart.  I hoped diet would clear it, but my doctor said he doubted it, and I knew I had spent decades building the blockage, so I knew he was probably right.  I knew my only hope was his skill and the scientific knowledge he possessed.  Medicine is collective knowledge that works.  It’s not magic, and it doesn’t always work, but it’s the only real game in town.

We’d like to believe we’re the master of our own fate, or that a magical being cares for us.  But neither positive thinking or spiritual belief affects reality.  My chance of using the power of self-control had long passed.  If I wanted control of my fate, I should have lost weight thirty years ago.  The reality is death comes to us all.  We can extend our lifetimes and improve our health if we work at it, but we have to put in the effort.

I do believe we have the power to affect our health, just watch this video.

I cannot do anything about not starting sooner.  I couldn’t avoid that first stent at the last moment.  I’ve already lost 15 pounds.  Maybe I can avoid the next stent.  I don’t know if a plant based diet can reverse heart disease, but it’s the hypothesis that I’m using  for now.

My final lesson was about dying.  When you think time might be up you learn what you really want:  more time!

Getting close to the end only reinforces the awareness that time comes to an end.

The funny thing was I learned I didn’t want to do big bucket list things, but to have more time for all the little things I do now, and to keep seeing everyone I know now.

JWH –5/12/13