Coronary Episode #1

Just My Luck  –  Chapter 5


Genetics being what they are, and my father’s family having a proclivity towards heart disease, I figured I had a 50/50 chance of facing my father’s fate. My grandfather, Pop Sam, was the only one in my father’s immediate family who lived to celebrate a 70th birthday. My mother’s family, by contrast, was 100% comprised of sturdy Swedish stock. My paternal grandparents both died of heart attacks while I was a small child. My maternal grandparents both died when I was a man in my 30s.

Pop n LaurenMy mother’s parents, Carl and Ebba Johnson, played a big role in the lives of my mother, sister and me after dad died. Every day I wear a simple silver ring with a rectangular garnet stone that belonged to my grandfather. If I turn out to be half the man that he was, I will consider my life a success. He’s with me when I wear that ring and I wear it all the time.  (photo left is Carl holding my daughter, Lauren, in 1980)

If I had a genetic Achilles heel, it would be if the genes that made my heart were from my father’s side of the family. I took some precautions in case they were, but was not obsessed with coronary physical fitness.

While in high school at age 17 I took up pipe smoking thinking it was less hazardous than cigarettes and made me look erudite (though it certainly didn’t improve my IQ). I tried it more or less as an experiment but found that I enjoyed it. By my first year of college at Virginia Tech, I added smoking an occasional cigar to my repertoire, especially when it bothered my roommate’s girlfriend.

When I transferred to Central Connecticut State, I lived off-campus with two other guys. At times we’d sit down in the living room for a bull session and a smoke. My roommates lit their cigarettes and I my pipe. Cigarettes are much less work than pipes. Pipe tobacco will go out if not properly attended and when finished requires a special tool to dig out the burnt ash from the bowl and a pipe cleaner to take out the tar that invariably accumulates in the stem. I really had to work hard to ignore the probability that the disgusting, black tar on a used pipe cleaner was probably also gathering in my mouth, throat and lungs.

One day I ran out of pipe tobacco as we sat in the living room and said the fateful words, “Gimme one of those, will ya?” The following morning I had a pack of cigarettes in my shirt pocket and a new, more dangerous pack-a-day habit.

Fooling Myself

Fast forward four years to the morning of April 1, 1975. In the teacher’s lounge at Stamford High School I rose from its huge conference table, cleared my throat, and announced to nobody in particular, “Happy April Fools Day! In solemn tribute to this hallowed date, having been a fool for the last several years, I hereby quit cigarettes!” To the thunderous applause of my three colleagues there present, I strode to the garbage can, tossed away my half empty pack of Old Golds, returned to my seat, pulled out a pipe, and lit it.

The following September, on the morning of the first day of the new school year – probably the most depressing day of each year for me – I was in that same teacher’s lounge when I quietly asked a buddy for a cigarette, the first one I had since April Fools Day. I figured that I had kicked the habit, but now I could allow myself the occasional cigarette to calm down when needed.

When I arrived home that evening, I had a fresh pack of Old Golds in my pocket and had been forgiven for my neglect by my pack-a-day habit.

April 1, 1976, the fool commits the swearing off the smokes celebration once again, this time with no fanfare. This time, the fool knew he could not ever be an occasional cigarette smoker. His license to bum a smoke from a friend had been revoked.

I’ve never smoked another cigarette.

But the pipes and cigars were another thing.

The Good Old Days of Second Hand Smoke

Today, it’s hard to imagine, but when I began my new career at Marsh & McLennan, in Manhattan there were no restrictions on when and where you could smoke in the office, in restaurants, bars (of course), or in public buildings. The commuter trains had “Smoking Cars” that filled will dense tobacco smoke before the train even started rolling. If you happened to walk through a smoking car while in search of a seat, you probably inhaled enough second-hand smoke asphyxiate a cow.

I was known in the office as the pipe smoker. My suit pockets bulged with the equipment – pipes of various styles and sizes, pipe cleaners, a bowl scraper, a tamper, a pipe lighter, and of course the pouch stuffed with tobacco. People complimented me on the aroma of my tobacco, which was a special blend I found in a little tobacco shop while on a long weekend excursion to Pennsylvania Dutch country. Whenever I ran low, I’d send a personal note of greeting and a check to the proprietor of the shop in Intercourse, PA who would write me a note to accompany the tobacco sent in the mail. I always enjoyed writing the address on the envelope of my tobacco order and note to Intercourse, PA. I wonder why.

In a way, smoking my pipe had become more like a lifestyle than a pastime.

I was 34 years old and hosting my annual Super Bowl Party when a friend, who also happened to be a Marsh client, commented to me as I puffed on my pipe beside him, “Hey, you inhale on that thing, don’t you.”

I started to say “No,” but realized he was right. I had just inhaled the pipe smoke as I would a cigarette. I wondered how long I’d been doing that.

My wife, bless her, said, “I’ve told you that a thousand times and a thousand times you denied it. Rick says it to you once and it’s a revelation?”

I started pipe smoking when I was 17. I’d been smoking for half of my life.

I’ve never smoked since.

Too Little Too Late?

With good reason, I was worried that the damage might already be done. My father took up smoking when he went to war in the early 1940s. Just about every soldier did. The Red Cross packages handed out to the troops in WWII included packs of cigarettes. The rumblings about smoking being linked to lung cancer and heart disease in the early/mid 1960s inspired him to quit. But he had nearly 20 years of pack-a-days behind him. Now I had 17.

Two days after my 44th birthday, 10/10/1995 I crossed the line. My lifetime now exceeded my father’s by a day. Maybe I did have my mother’s coronary genes. Maybe I’d be okay.

Three years later, while on a walk through the neighborhood on a Friday evening, I felt a sudden stabbing pain in my left armpit and I became short of breath. Of course I was roughly at the mid-point of my walk so it didn’t matter if I continued on or doubled back, I was about a half mile in either direction from home . I remember praying as I walked, “If I drop, please God, let someone find me soon.” I wasn’t being melodramatic; I meant it.

When I arrived home, Doris called from the kitchen, “How was your walk?”

“I’m not feeling too good; can you take me to the hospital?”

She immediately stepped out of the kitchen and looked at me. “You’re really pale. I’m calling an ambulance.”

“No,” I shouted. “By the time it takes them to get here, we could be at the hospital. I’m really scared. Please, let’s go.”

Note to self and you: That was a bad call. The nurses at the hospital scolded me seriously for insisting that Doris drive me to the hospital. The logic hadn’t occurred to me. “What should she do if you passed out on the way? Does she continue on or pull over to try to resuscitate you and ask incompetent strangers for help? Always call an ambulance.” I could hear the unspoken “, you idiot” that belonged at the end of that command.

On the bed in the Emergency Room, over and over I silently prayed, Please God, not now. Doris was scared as she held my hand. I didn’t want my kids, who were roughly the ages of my sister and me when our dad died, to go through what we did.

Gradually the pain subsided, whatever medication they gave me was working.

Eventually, the ER nurse told me that I hadn’t had a heart attack. It may have been close, but the enzyme test was negative. I was very relieved. I mentally prepared to go home.

Like Father Like Son

But the cardiologist on duty that evening wanted to keep me overnight and do an angiogram. They put a very small thread with a micro camera into an artery from my right armpit and snaked it to my heart to have a look around. The following morning, Sunday, the cardiologist sat with Doris and me to say that one of the arteries of my heart had an 85% blockage and a second had a 70% blockage. “This is what they used to call ‘hardening of the arteries.’”

Those were the very words under “cause of death” on my father’s death certificate.

Not to worry though. Two days after the angiogram I had an angioplasty, also called the balloon procedure.   Working through the same route taken for the angiogram, the surgeon ‘rooter-rootered’ the blockages and inserted three stents to keep the arteries open and free flowing.

This procedure that was unheard of in my father’s day was by now very routine. I had been on the third of four patient-carrying gurneys waiting outside the Operating Room in a line, like kids at Disneyworld. A second parade was going to line up after lunch.

It all went off like clockwork without incident. The only entry point for the procedure was a little incision in my right armpit. No sutures were required. I went from the recovery room to my hospital room for an overnight sleep and was discharged on Tuesday.

I was better than new three days after entering the ER.

I nearly had my father’s fatal heart attack, but thanks to advances in medicine over the ensuing 30 years, the doctors knew what was wrong and how to fix it – quickly.


Just My Luck.

©2016 James Ash

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