Yes, Dorothy, I’ve Had a Heart Attack


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.