Wednesday, July 9, 2008

"Not a Moment Too Soon, I Thought of Tim Russert"

The following was published in the New York Times on July 8, 2008

Not a Moment Too Soon, I Thought of Tim Russert


Most Saturday mornings, I bicycle with a group of men, mostly in their 50s, whom I affectionately call the Cheat Death group. We are all in pretty good shape, competitive but supportive, and convinced that hard-core exercise is our ticket to postponing the inevitable.

The ride a few Saturdays back was a tough one. At 6:30 a.m., the pack took off fast and immediately headed for the hills near Durham, N.H. The first few climbs felt pretty good, but by the third hill I started to feel nauseated.

Figuring that was probably a result of the four beers and large Chinese dinner the night before, I kept going. Twenty-five miles into the ride, I had fallen to the back of the pack. I was short of breath and wondering how I was going to make it much farther.

I am someone who hates to quit. But after the third time the group had to stop and wait for me, I decided I had no choice. I watched them pedal away, then lay down in the grass.

I was angry and scared. For the first time my body had given out on me, and I had no clue what was going on. Besides the nausea, my only symptoms were a persistent cough and an overwhelming feeling that something was not right.

I called my wife and got a ride home.

After showering, I lay down in bed and started thinking. Though I am a 50-year-old guy with a stressful job and a little too much around the middle, I had a clean bill of health. I had good cholesterol numbers and a great doctor, and recently I had passed a cardiac stress test.

That’s when Tim Russert popped into my head. In the last couple of weeks, like almost every middle-age man, I had taken a very personal interest in every detail of his story. Yes, he was overweight. But hadn’t he just passed a stress test?

That’s when the light went on. I bolted out of bed, went to the computer and Googled “How do you know you are having a heart attack?” The first Web site that popped up was a list of warning signs (ed. note: this link has gone dead so use this link instead) from the American Heart Association. As I read on, I started to sweat.

Nausea.” Check.

Shortness of breath.” Check.

Chest discomfort.” Perhaps, though it really didn’t feel like much.

Ignoring the Web site’s advice to call 911 (I was too vain to have an ambulance pull up to my house), I drove to the hospital.

When I stepped up to admissions desk the nurse asked why I was there. “Mild chest pains,” I said. “How old?” she asked. “Fifty,” I replied.

She nonchalantly turned to the orderly and said, “Hey, Lenny, we got another one.” I guess many men, stunned by Mr. Russert’s sudden death, were doing just the same thing I was.

A doctor attached some wires to my body and conducted a quick EKG. “Mr. Bicks,” he said minutes later, “you are suffering a heart attack.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” he answered, then produced those squiggly lines on the graph paper. I swore. Then I called my wife and I started to cry.

This is one of those times that defines your life, like the death of a parent or the birth of a child. In a split-second, you cross the invisible “before and after” line and realize that nothing is ever going to be the same. For that moment my life had been removed from my hands. But I kept thinking, I’m supposed to be invulnerable. I’d passed a stress test, drank red wine, used a lot of olive oil, exercised like an insane person. This could not possibly be happening to me.

The doctor took out a large needle full of a sedative. The rest is a blur: a trip in an ambulance to a larger hospital, sirens blaring, an hour on the table in a cath lab, a stent implanted to open the blocked artery, my wife crawling tearfully into my bed to give me a hug, a doctor showing me before-and-after pictures of my artery, and losing his temper when I asked when I might return to work.

As in Tim Russert’s case, there were no warning signs. No sign I was suffering from coronary artery disease. A piece of plaque in one of my arteries just broke off and created a massive blood clot. When it did, I suffered a severe heart attack. If I had not gone to the hospital, I might very well have died.

Because at the right moment I thought of Tim Russert, I am one of the lucky ones. I get to hug my wife and my kids, understand how wonderful my friends are and realize exactly how much I love my life. It is a debt I can never repay.

Michael Bicks produces documentaries for ABC News.

Illustration accompanying article by Katherine Streeter

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