A few hours later, a thoracic surgeon told Songer he had a 50-50 chance of surviving the emergency open heart surgery he was about to undergo. The following day, Songer learned from his wife the name of the disorder that had caused his cardiac problem — along with several other maladies — which had gone undiagnosed for more than 50 years.
“No one had ever said anything, ever,” Songer said. “It was a huge relief finding out what was wrong,” although he remains convinced that a timely diagnosis might have averted the catastrophic event and spared him years of pain and anxiety from related disorders that had been wrongly blamed on a protein-deficient diet.
Tall and gangly
As a child, Songer was unusually tall and skinny, with severe buck teeth and weak wrists and ankles that were susceptible to repeated sprains. Growing up in Florida in the 1960s and ’70s, none of the doctors his parents consulted found anything to account for his weak muscles. At age 5 he underwent surgery for a double inguinal hernia, a common childhood malady that occurs when soft tissue protrudes through weak abdominal muscles. For many people, hernia repair is a one-time fix; in Songer’s case it would recur repeatedly as he got older.
By ninth grade, Songer was so tall and thin that his classmates nicknamed him “T-bone”: he stood 6-2 and weighed about 110 pounds. As he got older, doctors never offered an explanation for his frequently sprained wrists and ankles or painful lower back.
In 1995, when he was 38, Songer underwent the second of six hernia surgeries after his abdominal tissue inexplicably tore. Twelve years later, during his third hernia operation, the surgeon noted his lack of abdominal muscle. He chided Songer about his diet and advised him to eat more protein, which builds muscle, and to lay off carbohydrates.
Songer protested that his diet, while far from stellar, was not deficient in protein. “I said, ‘I eat plenty of meat,’ ” Songer recalled, although it was clear the surgeon did not believe him.
He was puzzled: Although he had gained weight as he got older, his diet didn’t seem different from that of his friends, none of whom had recurrent hernias. After his sixth hernia surgery in 2009, his doctor told him that losing weight would prevent future hernias. At 6-4 and 228 pounds, he was overweight but not obese.