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Essay

The Decision of a Lifetime

In His Twilight, Facing the End on His Terms

By Chalmers M. Roberts
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 28, 2004; Page A01

Chalmers Roberts's byline began to appear regularly in The Washington Post in 1949. He retired as chief diplomatic correspondent in 1971.

I could be dead when you read this. But I thought it might be worthwhile to put down my thoughts about how I decided to skip a lifesaving heart operation.


Roberts, at his backyard pool earlier this week. Despite physical ailments, the 93-year-old built up his strength over the summer by swimming laps. (Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

About the Author

Chalmers M. Roberts was once described as a "one-man band who could and did cover any story in the paper." Besides serving as chief diplomatic correspondent of The Post, he wrote about the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress, the White House, the redevelopment of Southwest Washington in the early 1950s and the Watts riots in 1965. He is the author of books on such topics as nuclear arms control and the joys of being a grandfather. He lives in Bethesda.

_____The Heart_____
Hearts in the Right Place (The Washington Post, Apr 5, 2005)
QUICK STUDY : A weekly digest of new research on major health topics (The Washington Post, Apr 5, 2005)
A Weekly Shot of News and Notes (The Washington Post, Apr 5, 2005)
How Can You Rehab a Broken Heart? Exercise, Diet, Stress Reduction (The Washington Post, Apr 5, 2005)
Hold the Nitro? (The Washington Post, Mar 29, 2005)
More Heart News

I am a 93-year-old man with congestive heart failure. The operation I'm skipping would replace a heart valve that has given up on me with a new pig's valve.

My cardiologist, whom I trust implicitly, and with whom I am now on intimate personal terms as I have never been with any other M.D., surprised me earlier this month. I had been in Sibley Memorial Hospital for a couple of days with problems caused by my faulty aortic valve. Dr. Ramin Oskoui asked me to consider having this open-heart surgery despite my age.

"If you were 83 and thought Herbert Hoover was still president, I wouldn't suggest it," Dr. Oskoui said. "But your mind is in amazingly good shape and your body seems to be quite good. Think about it."

He got my attention, of course.

I had a hard time getting to sleep that night, for all my thinking. Finally, my nurse brought me a Tylenol that got me to sleep. That Saturday afternoon, just three weeks ago, my eldest son, David, who lives in Newton, Mass., flew down to spend the weekend with me. We kicked the idea of the heart operation around at some length and in some detail.

That Saturday night I woke up around 3 a.m. with my left arm in pain. It seemed to me that my arm was reminding me that I have a second serious problem; besides the heart valve, my spinal cord is a mess: The pads between the bones in my back are worn out, exposing the nerves, which caused me, a couple years ago, excruciating back pains. My back doctor sent me to Sibley's pain center, where another doctor gave me a shot in exactly the right spot in my spine. This relieved the pain of my spinal stenosis for a couple of years, after which a second shot gave me another couple of years without hurting too much.

But when the pain again began to return and I asked my back doctor about a third shot, he began to talk to me about possible back surgery. I replied: Oh no, not at my age. I want a second opinion. So he sent me down to another back doctor in one of those K Street medical buildings.

After he examined my MRI pictures, this doctor looked at me and said: At 92, with this back, no surgery. I said: Doc, I love you. He recommended a trip to the Sports Authority to buy a back pad. Wear it all day, he said, and take it off when you go to bed.


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