On March 26, 1658, a surgeon removed a massive kidney stone from the English diarist Samuel Pepys. The operation involved all sorts of nasty 17th-century medical techniques and by all rights should have killed the patient.
It didn't, and for that Pepys was eternally grateful. He had a special box constructed and kept his stone -- the size of a tennis ball -- in it. And he resolved to celebrate the operation's anniversary for the rest of his life, which he did, dining with friends every March 26 and toasting his good fortune.
I wish I could be as dramatic as Pepys on the anniversary of the day my life changed -- July 17, 2001 -- but I have no visible souvenir of my heart attack. I just carry a little bottle of nitroglycerin around in my pocket. (Sadly, it's not enough to do any of the fun things one does with nitroglycerin -- blow open a safe, knock a hole in a wall.)
Still, whenever the anniversary rolls around, I think back to the summer morning that now neatly divides my life into Before Heart Attack and After Heart Attack.
I was at the YMCA, pedaling on an exercise bike, when I found myself bathed in the most disgusting sweat you could ever imagine, like hot, salty motor oil oozing from my pores. My chest hurt and my left arm hurt, as if an invisible elephant was standing on the former and an invisible boa constrictor had wrapped itself around the latter.
I got off the bike, drove myself home and said to my wife, "I think I may be having a heart attack. Ha ha."
She immediately called an ambulance, and I was soon relegated to a supporting role in the drama. On the way to Washington Adventist Hospital, the paramedic said, "Let me get this straight: You thought you were having a heart attack at the Y, and you drove yourself home?"
I grunted in an affirmative sort of way.
"You know," he said, "you really shouldn't do that. We'll pick you up anywhere."
I confess there was a moment when I was being wheeled from the emergency room into the cardiac catheterization lab where I thought This Might Be It. I tried to look on the bright side: I would be able to meet John Lennon and Jesus Christ. I had questions for them both.
But I didn't see a white light, or float above the gurney, or see my entire life flash before my eyes in all its boring detail. I just lay there in a narcotized state while Laurence Kelley, a cardiologist, snaked his way up my offending artery as if he was an explorer piloting a dugout canoe to the headwaters of the Orinoco River. He reamed out the blockage, installed a nifty piece of hardware called a stent and pronounced himself pleased with his work. I then spent four days in intensive care, where I got to have my first sponge bath in approximately 36 years.
So, Why me? I didn't have any risk factors, wasn't a "walking heart attack."
Well, why not me?
My heart attack taught me that life's not fair. I'd always known this in an abstract sort of way, an ironic oh-I-dropped-my-new-ice-cream-cone- on-the-sidewalk-life's-not-fair-wah-wah sort of way. But I didn't know it in a concrete, no-kidding way. I tell ya, one heart attack at age 38 and it tends to drive the message home.
Rather than finding this realization depressing, I decided to find it liberating. If you can die on any day, any day you don't die is cause for celebration.
Which is why tomorrow -- barring a too-ironic-for-words death between the time I finish writing this column and the time it runs -- I will sleep late, go for a jog, read the paper, putter around the house, hug my kids, kiss my wife, pet my dog (or is it pet my kids, hug my wife, kiss my dog?) and generally take pleasure in the small things that life pretty much gives you free.
At dinner, I will uncork a nice bottle of red wine and toast my good fortune. I think Samuel Pepys would approve.
Someone Saved My Life Tonight
Men, being men, often ignore heart attack symptoms, telling themselves that those strange symptoms they're experiencing are from heartburn or a pulled muscle or an invisible elephant standing on their chest.
If you or someone you know experiences chest discomfort, shortness of breath or any of the other signs associated with heart attack (see them at www.americanheart.org), call 911 right away.
It's better to be embarrassed in the emergency room than dead in the living room.
Have a Heart
We close out the penultimate week of our Send a Kid to Camp campaign with $300,908.08 in donations. Our goal by a week from today is $750,000. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, but looking over last year's campaign, I see that most of the money came in during the fund drive's waning days.
If you've been meaning to contribute, and to help at-risk kids enjoy a possibly life-changing experience, now's the time. Here's how: Make a check or money order payable to "Send a Kid to Camp" and mail it to: Attention, Lockbox, Department 0500, Washington, D.C. 20073-0500.
To contribute online, go to www.washingtonpost.com/camp. Click on the icon that says, "Make Your Tax-Deductible Donation."
To contribute by phone with Visa or MasterCard, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 on a touch-tone phone. Then punch in KIDS, or 5437, and follow the instructions.
Another way to contribute: Monday from noon to 8, hair stylists at McLean's Salon Daniel will be donating their fees to Camp Moss Hollow. The salon is at 6828A Old Dominion Dr.