Each time I have seen Barney Clark's picture in the newspaper or seen his grateful son on morning television, my mind has flashed back to another face: the heavy-jowled countenance of my father who was not so fortunate as the retired dentist we've all cheered on in recent days. When I was a teen-ager, I watched my father suffer a heart attack that would later take his life. It's from that personal vantage point that I've followed the continuing saga of Barney Clark and his new artificial heart, cheering when the implant surgery was successful, following the stories that tell us of the series of seizures he has suffered as intently as the doctors who are studying the electrocardiogram.
I'm sure many people share some of those feelings, for who among us hasn't been touched by the specter of seeing a loved one or close friend snatched away or endangered by a heart attack? What if . . . we must have wondered these last days . . . what if an artificial heart had been available when we stood helplessly by and watched someone we cared about slip past the physician's skill?
My moment of final pain for my father came suddenly, but the toll that heart disease demands was a part of our family's life for many years before. He was a colorful character, an All-American football player at Hampton Institute before graduating from Wilberforce (Ohio) University, a man whose occupations included schoolteacher and riverboat captain before he settled down to become a minister in the AME Church.
He was 37 years old when I came along, young enough theoretically to be able to romp with a 5- or 6-year-old, but even then the heart problems that later would sideline him had begun to surface. The sense of specialness he wished to convey to me had to come from such extras as a snappy gift of white boots rather than the physical exertion a kid might relish.
This was before the days when we knew so clearly that cholesterol is associated with increased risk of heart disease, and we, as southerners, showed our hospitality by providing generous portions of food. Every Sunday found our table filled with church members and loaded with victuals, including two meats. My father's health was not aided by his earlier habits of diet, and he had a persistent weight problem.
This also was before the days when we so clearly knew that stress can kill. He was a positive man, a risk taker, opting to assume the money-raising challenge of building a new church despite his health problems.Building a church with a working-class congregation sometimes required the magical transformation of good will into working capital. It became commonplace for his less-than-overwhelming salary to be diverted to pay bricklayers and stonemasons.
The family got involved at all stages. When the trips into the hospital became more frequent, we added a hospital bed at home to ease his discomfort when he recuperated.
I never knew how he really felt inside as the disease worsened and many of the responsibilities shifted increasingly to my mother, and my older sister and brother. The heavy jowls slackened as the doctor's order to lose weight was followed to the letter. When he was finally forced to give up his beloved pulpit, he took the job of presiding elder, which required weekly visits to various churches in a limited area. It was considered less strenuous than pastoring a congregation, and it was my brother's task to drive him on Sundays.
The fateful Sunday came when I was 14 and he was 51. My brother was at the wheel, I rode in back and my father sat in the front seat. We had pulled into a service station less than 10 minutes from our home when the fatal heart attack hit. It was more frightening for its suddenness, for he had given us children no indication that he was in severe or drastic discomfort, probably in an effort to avoid unduly alarming us.
But what if, as we stood helplessly by, there had been an artificial heart or the possibility of a transplant? What if . . . ?
That scene, played over in a million moments of pain, is why there is an added poignance as we all pull for Barney Clark, his wife, Una Loy, and his children.