TEN MINUTES INTO an early-morning jog through Boston Common on a hot summer day, my rib cage suddenly felt as though it was about to explode. I started clutching at my heart. My wife, Iris, who hardly ever exercises and yet manages to stay thin as a rail, teased me. "C'mon, slowpoke. The heat getting to you?"
But this was no ordinary runner's cramp. I found the nearest tree, leaned against it, then crumpled to the ground. I felt the blood draining from my face.
After 10 minutes, the crushing chest pain disappeared. Iris helped me as I hobbled back to our hotel room. I had no idea what could have caused the ache. I had run in dozens of weekend 10K races and had ribbons to show for them. I chalked up the pain to a too-big dinner the night before and the high New England humidity. For the rest of our vacation in June, 1988, the heat wave continued. We did nothing more strenuous than stroll across the Charles River to Cambridge.
Back home in San Francisco a week later, I resumed my four-mile-a-day jogging in Golden Gate Park. I soon forgot, or at least blocked out of my mind, the mysterious pain.
The elephant that sat on my chest in Boston Common didn't return, but as June faded into July, I became aware of a definite sensation deep in my right arm. It wasn't a raging fire; it was more a smoldering burn.
Still, the ache didn't seem to be cause for alarm. If it was heart-related, it would radiate from my chest or left arm, wouldn't it? Maybe I had strained my right arm playing softball. Or maybe I had pulled a muscle when I hauled our old sofa from the basement for a summer garage sale.
But the pain persisted and gradually got worse. It began whenever I started exercising. Ten minutes of running, and the dull ache in my arm was so fierce that I'd have to stop. I switched to bicycle riding, hoping that jogging was somehow aggravating my arm muscles. But when I cycled, the pain returned with the same persistence. I lost a couple of nights' sleep and wondered: What the hell was happening to me?
In early August, I went to a local sports-medicine clinic staffed by the doctors who treat the San Francisco 49ers. But during my examination, a young orthopedist ruled out any muscular or skeletal problems. He shrugged. He really didn't know what ailed me. The lack of a diagnosis alarmed me. I knew there was something wrong, and, damn it, I wanted the orthopedist to tell me what it was.
That same day, I took Iris, who had a sore throat, to our internist, Dr. David Mackler. In passing, I mentioned my pain to the doctor. He immediately hooked me up to an electrocardiograph, attaching six sensors to my chests, arms and legs to get an image of my heartbeat. The results were normal. Still, he urged me to see a cardiologist. "It's probably nothing, but don't ignore the pain. Have it checked out," he told me. When I balked, he picked up the telephone and made an appointment for me the next day with Dr. James Mailhot.
I had a creepy feeling as I waited to see this physician whose specialty--the heart--is the venue of love, emotion and life. I was the youngest in the crowded waiting room by 30 years. I shared stacks of Modern Maturity magazines with a frail man poised over a cane and a woman in her 70s whose fine hair matched the color of her ivory gloves. A beefy woman shuffled behind an aluminum walker and then plopped down with a whoosh on the Naugahyde sofa beside me.
When my name was called, I went into an examination room and put on my favorite T-shirt and my cotton shorts and laced up my running shoes. As I stepped onto the treadmill, I was ready to run down Carl Lewis. But after three minutes, Mailhot's eyebrows shot up. He stopped the machine, motioned me to a chair and handed me a cup of water. Considering what he was about to tell me, I could have used something stronger.
"There's definitely an irregularity. It seems that your heart is not getting enough blood," Mailhot said. He suggested taking a picture of my heart, called an angiogram. "We'll make arrangements for you to stay at the hospital overnight."
Boom! Heart problems at 36!
Whatever else Mailhot said was lost on me. My mind was reeling. I was first ashamed, then infuriated. In the sterile medical office, I felt dazed, trying to grasp what this stranger in a white coat was telling me. Was I going to die? Was I destined to be the kind of father whose kids are not supposed to upset him because of "Daddy's heart"? What was in store for me? Pills, a required diet of water-packed tuna, beans of all kinds, oat-bran muffins washed down with carrot juice?