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Al Martinez

A Heart to Heart With Mr. Cheney

July 05, 2001|Al Martinez

One day about 25 years ago, I was walking down the street whistling a happy tune when I got this terrific pain in my shoulders. I instantly telephoned my doctor and he said to stop drinking Diet Pepsi. In his medical opinion, I was having a Pepsi Gas Attack.

So I stopped drinking Diet Pepsi and stopped whistling happy tunes, and was all right for awhile. Then one night I was out strolling through the moonlight looking for werewolves in Topanga when the pain hit me again.

If it wasn't Diet Pepsi and it wasn't happy tunes, what was it? I went through a whole list of evils I have enjoyed over the years, from whole cows stuffed with wild rice to tanker trucks of vodka martinis. When I had finished, my doctor, stunned by my excesses, ordered an immediate stress test. The Diet Pepsi diagnosis was no longer valid.

To cut to the chase, or cut to the cut I guess, I underwent a double bypass. That was 10 years ago. I bounced back like a lion after a dik-dik, but then developed a heart rate that began shooting up from a normal beat of 80 to something like 180. Not good. Death was knocking at my door. My cardiologist said we're going to do us some electrophysiotherapy.

The idea was to stick a wire up my vein and zap the heart nerve causing the rapid beats. While CIGNA my insurance company was fooling around with the paperwork to determine if I was worth it, I passed out in Sears one day while shopping for Levis.

It was an embarrassment to CIGNA and me (Nieman Marcus, yes, but Sears?), so they OK'd the operation, I mean the procedure. But then the heart rate was too low. So they implanted a pacemaker, and that's where I am today. Tick, tick, tick, tick....

I mention all this only because of the travails of Vice President Richard Cheney. Old Dick and I are among 12.4 million Americans who suffer from coronary heart disease. We have undergone similar treatments, from bypasses to pacemakers. The only difference is that he's had four heart attacks and I've only had the Diet Pepsi Gas Warning.

However, there is a kind of brotherhood among those of us who have "zippers" down our front from clavicle to belly button, more or less. The zipper is the scar left by the cutting. Like the Heidelberg scar, it's a kind of symbol of flawed manhood.

I was on the Michael Jackson radio show once and we were discussing our bypass scars. My wife, who listens to him wherever he may be, heard that he had rubbed vitamin E cream on his scar and it was almost gone. I wanted to see it, so I said I'd show him mine if he'd show me his, and my wife was right. Michael's chest is as smooth and clear as a baby's behind.

Cheney's heart attacks put him in a precarious position, but he declares with a great big Brownie smile that he's had his surgery and now he's moving on. Everyone seems to be moving on these days. Nixon moved on. Clinton moved on. Gore moved on. Meg Ryan moved on and even Slobodan Milosevic is moving on.

Arrhythmia, as it is called, is what put me on the floor at Sears. One minute I was checking prices, the next minute I was down. Cheney's pacemaker-plus controls that. The arrhythmia, not the prices. Rising prices can still cause disbelief, nausea, a sudden drop in one's standard of living.

The hype surrounding Cheney's problems would have him in tip-top shape due not to the reality of his condition but to the political ramifications that illness in high places presents. I suspect that any day now they'll have him scaling the south face of Annapurna to prove how fit he is. But being alive is fit enough, and I wouldn't climb too high if I were he.

Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack while in office and Lyndon Johnson had his gall bladder removed, and they downplayed their ailments. Ike went right on grinning from ear to ear and LBJ, in true Texas crudity, lifted his shirt to the cameras to show America his stomach and his scar.

Then there was Dick Nixon, who suffered from political dementia, and Bill Clinton, who suffered from a severe case of sexual idiocy, but they weren't life-threatening.

I faced my mortality in the 1950s. I never expected to live through the Korean War, and when I did, I figured that the rest of my life was bonus time. Later, told I had to have the bypass surgery, I sat on a mountaintop with a view toward the ocean and came to grips with the choices I had made in life that caused my problem, none of which included Diet Pepsi.

My days have almost always been spent in the fast lane, where speed and agility count for everything. I raced with the wind, drank with the boys, ate with the gourmands and wrote with the fury of a man possessed. I have no regrets.

To quote the ultimate medical statistic, one out of one of us is going to die someday anyhow. Our only hope is to do it with as much dignity and as little pain as possible. And then move on.


Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. He is at

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