Five Years Later, a Toast to Life

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By John Kelly
Monday, July 17, 2006

Exactly five years ago today -- about 7 in the morning -- I felt a crushing pain in my chest. On a scale of 1 to 10, this one went to 11.

This problem was my heart. It had kept me alive for 38 years, and now it was trying to kill me. A coronary artery had become blocked and, starved of oxygen-rich blood, my heart tissue was starting to die.

When I think of it now, I imagine millions of little cardiac cells valiantly holding their breath and then starting to succumb, one by one. I see Death moving across my heart like a combine slicing through a wheat field.

I'm too young to die, I think.

And Death says, "Nonsense! You're never too young!" And then he pops the clutch on the combine and downshifts with his bony hand.

"Ouch," I say.

There's still a bit of my heart that's dead -- though, thankfully, the rest of me isn't. My Lovely Wife dialed 911. The ambulance took me to the hospital. A doctor there punched a hole in my groin, snaked a catheter up to my heart and reamed me out.

I lay in intensive care for four days and then went home to start the rest of my life.

What's that old saying? Dying is easy, comedy is hard? What I discovered was this: Having a heart attack is easy, recovering from one is hard.

I don't mean the physical recovery, though that's no walk in the park. (Curiously, however, it did include walks in the park -- and around the mall, and on a treadmill.)

I'm talking about the mental aspects, the whole gee-I-almost-died thing. It messes with your head.

Bob Gelenter knows what I mean. He's never had a heart attack, but for years he suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. "It's an enlarged heart," said Bob, 74, of Rockville. "It causes problems. Sudden death is one of those."


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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