Yes, Dorothy, I've Had a Heart Attack

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I’ve been wrong about so many things, so I’m announcing that I’ve seen the flashing lights at the bottleneck in the tunnel-of-irony and am changing my ways. Everything I thought I knew about leading a healthy pilot’s life is, apparently, wrong. This occurred to me while staring up at the ER’s fluorescent lights—one was flickering; where the hell’s the janitor?—and contemplating the elephant, not only in the room, but squatting on my chest. I’d suffered a heart attack. Here’s the backstory. (This might get boring so feel free to switch to the video of the kayaker getting slapped with an octopus).

I’m 64, the age a young Paul McCartney made cloyingly serene in his 1967 song about life’s sunset images. Screw that. To me, 64 was going along just fine with little time for relaxation or mindless reflection. I’d been busy flight-instructing, writing, exercising and doing the healthy stuff old guys are supposed to do while avoiding everything we’d like to do. I’m a vegetarian; have been for 25 years. I avoid sugar, refined flour, Ben Affleck movies—yeah, possibly unrelated to cardio health, but, really, Pearl Harbor? C’mon. I don’t smoke, despite writing cigarettes into my novels, because they’re set in the gauzy past when everyone—no exceptions—smoked. Donna Reed smoked! James Stewart! Everyone, including me when I was a teenager in the Army. Thought I looked cool. I didn’t.

Gradually, I took up the smug healthy lifestyle of eating well, exercising and pretending I like NPR pledge drives. I don’t. I was doing it all right to the point of passing on everything served at fly-in pancake breakfasts, which are composed of everything humans should never eat. My healthier-than-y’all card was punched, and I was looking forward to striding my ideal BMI into age 65 with ego held high, a pretentious example of living and flying right.

Then: Pow! Reality came in through the bathroom window—to fair-use glean another McCartney theme—and reminded me just how insignificant my golden-years plans could be. I thought I had a cold, albeit a really bad one, so as a good instructor I set the noble example and grounded myself for a few days. The cold abated, leaving behind an annoying cough and accompanying chest pain (DING! DING! DING!), which I attributed to the cold. Le Grand Delusion had begun. I flew, again, and felt fine. Being aloft has always been a cure-all for earthly infirmities. I was back in action, although I had to admit running a bit tired at the end of the day—from the cold, of course. (Insert DAS Boat Alarm here.)

After two days, I awoke at 2 a.m., alone. My wife was in Turkey; I can’t make this stuff up. I had a belt-tightening pain across my chest and pressing between my shoulder blades. Plus, I couldn’t breathe so well. That darn cold. (Ah, Houston, we have a problem … this guy’s an idiot ...) Next day, fine. A bit tired, but fine. Another day of flying, another night of cold-induced chest pain, and I finally decided to see the doctor, who listened patiently to my diagnosis but insisted on forming her own, based on facts, including what I thought to be a pointless EKG and overly aggressive blood work.

The EKG results were suspicious, but blood results later that day, conclusive. So, like William Holden floating face down, dead, in Norma Desmond’s swimming pool in Sunset Boulevard, we return, now, to the scene of me, as played by me, on the ER gurney staring faced-up at the cold, flickering reality of my grade B horror movie, The Cold That Masked The Heart Attack.

Forty-five years of flying sank like a U-boat with a ruptured hull from a merciless depth charge that I couldn’t detect, despite the warnings. I didn’t want to detect them. I’d considered myself healthy and leading the whole-grain good life, even ate kale despite hating it. Didn’t matter. The invisible destroyer had me on its sonar.

One angioplasty and two FAA/PMA-unapproved stents later, my heart’s pumping fine, and, like Hope & Crosby, I’m on the Road To Special Issuance, along which I’ll no doubt meet and best amusing FAA bureaucratic obstacles, sing a few songs and, like Bob & Bing, I’ll take up smoking and find a happy ending with Dorothy Lamour and endless sequels to follow. Hey, I tried responsible living, but it seems that was a fantasy. Pass the pork rinds.

Comments (9)

Thanks for sharing what has to be a very traumatic experience. You covered up the feelings you experienced with myriad distractions (McCartney, Holden, Hope & Crosby, ...) in literally every paragraph. The next time you write I hope you share them. Mortality is the ultimate human experience; you don't have to be coy when writing about it. You never know if you'll have another chance to do so.

Posted by: Brad Koehn | October 7, 2018 9:30 AM    Report this comment

Hmmmm, this sounded somewhat similar and as surreal to a cardiac event I went through two years ago next month. My symptoms however, were slightly different, no cold like issues but being very tired after a good nights sleep, and the feeling like I pulled a muscle in my chest. I went about my usual activities for a day or so then after not feeling right after going to bed one evening had my wife call the squad. Got to the ER and after fine looking EKGs the blood test confirmed it, voila I was having a heart attack. I was 59 in decent health (so I thought) a non smoker, not a heavy drinker, not overweight, a private multi, instrument pilot. Long story short, my left anterior decending artery was blocked 90% (as many staff at the hospital told me they call that the widow maker) and I am now the (not so) proud owner of a single stent. It took 3 months of recovery, exercise, diet education, stresss management classes, a cardiac stress test and EKG documentation, the sign off of my cardiologist and 3 more months for the FAA to sort through the volume of paperwork to get a special issuance medical. Since then I have been flying, exercising, living and trying to remain healthy. I did use the basic med option this year as I am not planning on flying for hire or going into the flight levels anymore other than as a passenger.

I trust you will be able to manag the recovery process and muck through the paperwork juggle that looms in your future. Much success to you in your return to the sky!

Posted by: Paul Klouda | October 7, 2018 10:34 AM    Report this comment

Really enjoy your articles. Best wishes for a speedy return to the air. And with minimum hassle from our friends in the puzzle palace

Posted by: BOB SAMSON | October 7, 2018 12:33 PM    Report this comment

Good article. It shows the insidious nature of heart attacks. Some mild enough to be confused with other maladies and some that will drop you in your tracks and kill you no matter if you are standing in the ER with a crash cart nearby. My own experience was somewhat different in that I was fortunate to have the problem discovered by a routine physical before the heart attack occurred. I was asymptomatic, but a stress test showed something was not quite right. Several tests later, they found that a blockage at a junction of the LAD made a stent impossible, so under the knife I went. I was not a health nut as you described, but a non-smoker with low BMI, low blood pressure and cholesterol numbers that showed nothing significant. My one problem area was a bad family history, which apparently overrides almost everything else. The takeaway, guys, is that you should never assume you are immune. A good annual physical can save your life.

After several years of doing the special issuance paperwork dance, I switched to the Basic Med route this time around. But, the annual physical is still part of my routine.

Posted by: John McNamee | October 7, 2018 12:44 PM    Report this comment

Paul -- very sorry to hear about the event, but so very glad you were able to get it fixed! Of course your faithful readers will be interested to hear your update on the special issuance process!

David Johnson

Posted by: DAVID JOHNSON | October 11, 2018 1:10 PM    Report this comment


Hope for a speedy recovery and when your medical paperwork equals your weight, you will be eligible for a new medical.

BTW Colon Cancer is one of the easiest detected and most treatable cancers if cought early. Fortunately for me my retirement medical from the Navy included the test. The bad news is I have to have a colonoscopy every 3 years.....the good news is I won't die a premature nasty death from cancer

Posted by: DAVID GAGLIARDI | October 11, 2018 7:20 PM    Report this comment

Wow! Wondered why you hadn't written in a while. Thanks for telling the story, good reminder to everyone! Best wishes on recovery.

Posted by: Peter Hamilton | October 11, 2018 8:53 PM    Report this comment

Good luck with that special issuance. I've been waiting 18 months, and I didn't even have a heart attack -- just intermittent angina, fixed by an outpatient procedure (yes, stents). Best wishes.

Posted by: Donald Grimes | October 11, 2018 9:01 PM    Report this comment

Enjoyed your article!
A healthy life-style is much toted by us medical creatures.
After practicing nearly 40 years in a small town,
I've learned what a stern mistress mother nature can be
and one who doesn't seemed to mind
to whom she cruelly and sadistically kills at random;
healthy or unhealthy lifestyle practices.

I envy the hard working joggers who later are destined to multiple joint replacements,
but really admire, and smile, at the 'devil-may-care'
'eat-any-thing-I-want' loafers who slowly die in the Nursing Home at 103!

Maybe Billy Joel got it right;
'only the good die young..'

Good luck Paul with your journey to recertification.

Posted by: David Ahrens | October 12, 2018 7:13 AM    Report this comment

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