I looked down, and there it was — my heart, feverishly thumping. My valves looked like little whips snapping back and forth. It was a strange sight indeed.
I turned 50 in July, so I decided — or, rather, my general practitioner decided — that I must have an echocardiogram, essentially a video of the heart at work, created by a transducer that sends sound waves through the chest that “echo” back. It was a moment I had long feared.
My grandfather on my mom’s side died in his 50s, after his third heart attack. My dad was 55 when his chest was opened to make way for a triple bypass, the first in a line of surgeries that stretched over the decades until he died 33 years later, of heart failure.
I was 15 when he had that triple bypass. I have vague memories of that time. I recall that the surgery took place at a Manhattan hospital. I remember a window looking out on a wide river and the shiny white subway tiles that lined the hospital room walls. And I remember tubes flowing in all directions. Most of all, I remember my dad lying in bed, wrapped in a white blanket, seeming exhausted but cheerful, as he always was whenever he was hospitalized. He knew how to put on a brave face.
It was a scary scene, though.
In my late teens or early 20s, I heard about the deleterious effects of cholesterol on arteries — how slowly it can build and build until it constricts the flow of blood so tightly that the heart suddenly stops, and you’re dead.
Both my grandfather and father were big red meat eaters. My grandfather smoked — a lot — as was common in his generation, but my dad never did, thank goodness.
I decided to live differently. I wanted to stay healthy. I swore off red meat in my early 20s. For two years I tried vegetarianism, but eventually returned to chicken and fish. I vowed to exercise. I ran — and still do. I biked — and still do. I swam — and still do on occasion. I would never, ever consider smoking.
As un-American as this might sound, I despise bacon. It was my dad’s favorite breakfast food, along with sunny-side-up eggs, heavily salted. (He grew up in the bush in the Belgian Congo, where there was no refrigeration, so food was preserved with lard and salt.)
It isn’t easy to write about your family’s health history. I believe, though, that my grandfather and my father wouldn’t mind me doing so. They understood the awful dangers and consequences of coronary artery disease.
What they did not understand in their youth — because no one did back in the day — was that heart disease is, to a great degree, preventable, according to the National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute. Yes, there is a genetic component to it. Heart disease, however, is largely a product of poor lifestyle choices — a fatty diet, lack of exercise and smoking.
Forty-six years have passed since President Nixon declared war on cancer, yet we have not pinpointed the root cause of it. Heart disease, on the other hand, we largely understand. It’s a complex condition to fix, but it’s fairly easy to comprehend why people’s hearts deteriorate and eventually stop beating.
Which brings me back to my echocardiogram. Age 50, I had long feared, might be a point of inflection for me, a moment in time when the course of my life changed for the worse. What would this test tell me? Would it show a narrowing or hardening artery? An undetected weakness?
You hear so often about people who have taken all the right precautions and exercised vigorously — and yet still get sick. Would that be me?
Thankfully, it wasn’t. I have never breathed such a long sigh of relief as I did when the doctor’s office called to say that my echocardiogram was normal. There were no signs of heart disease.
In the four days that I waited for my result (determined by a cardiologist), I kept telling myself that it would be normal. My blood pressure was 120/80. My electrocardiograms had been perfect year after year. There were no outward signs of heart disease. I had never felt chest pains or dizziness, nor had my ankles ever swelled.
Still, both my grandfather and father had died of heart disease. History was weighing heavily on me.
In the United States, someone suffers a heart attack every 34 seconds, and heart disease kills 1 in 4 Americans, according to the American College of Cardiology. More than 600,000 Americans die of the disease each year.
Lest you think heart disease is confined to men, think again. It kills more women than breast cancer. An estimated 42 million women are currently living with some form of heart disease, and 23 percent of women who have a heart attack for the first time die within a year of it, compared with 18 percent of men.
It needn’t be this way in many cases, however. Choose wisely.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.