My Wonderful Heart Attack happened last March while I was hiking with my wife in the mountains west of Boulder, Colo. The dogs were ranging out ahead as usual and, except for some heartburn, I felt good as we walked through the trees.
I said to Pat, "I have some heartburn and I can;t think what I ate to cause it."
"Maybe youre having a heart attack."
"Don't be a jerk. I don't have any of the symptoms — no pain on the left side, no feeling of doom. Heart attack!"
"Well, then, let's keep going."
We went down a hill and started up another and I started sweating and, suddenly, lost my energy. "I'm going to have to sit down."
Pat ran to call for help. I lay on a log for a while, felt a little better and started to walk back the way I came. By the time I reached the road, an ambulance was there.
"Sorry, guys," I apologized. "It was just a false alarm. I have heartburn. As a matter of fact, it's moved down from where it was." They didn't listen. I got oxygen. I got on a gurney. I got taken to the hospital. The last thing I remember saying as I was pushed into the emergency room was, "This is going to be expensive." I was in an induced coma for the rest of the month. They say I died twice.
I'd read about backpackers like me, or triathletes, who, after competing, came home, sat on the couch and died. My heart attack was not entirely unexpected: Most of my nearest relatives have died from heart attacks. A clump of plaque or something breaks loose and clogs up an artery. In my case, it was the infamous widow-maker or ventral artery. There is no way to detect this. Earlier, I'd volunteered for an extensive cardiovascular study at the University of Colorado — stress tests, EKGs, basal metabolism, thousands of dollars worth of tests — and I was judged in the top 5 percent of my age group. Given the high risk factor my family history created, I tried to control some of the things I could and boasted a slow heart rate, low cholesterol and low blood pressure. But the first thing my Wonderful Heart Attack taught me is that you do not stay in shape to avoid a heart attack; it's to enable you to recover faster from a heart attack.
The second thing my Wonderful Heart Attack did was answer the question we the living have, and for me, there was no light at the end of the tunnel, no aura of peace and happiness, no favorite dogs. There wasn't even a fiery glow beneath my feet, though one religious friend said that's only because I wasn't dead enough.
When death came knocking at my heart's door, it tore me out of life-as-usual and gave me the gift of more time. This sounds silly, but the world was brighter, more vivid, crisper. Everything around me had a clarity I haven't experienced since I was a kid. I was sitting in an aspen grove not long ago, looking at the brilliant green grass with daisy, horsemint and trillium scattered through it. The sunlight ignited the trees into brilliant torches and there was the smell of green-growing things floating in the air. A light breeze set the aspen leaves rustling and there was the always-summer sound of a grasshopper's wings clattering somewhere beside me. It was all everyday magic that I had forgotten.
I started cardiac rehabilitation and over the weeks and months my aerobic capacity has increased. I belong to a fitness club and am in better physical shape than I was before. I am seeing the world from a bicycle seat rather than an automobile.
My Wonderful Heart Attack has changed other things, too: No more sausages, no caffeine, lots of fiber, vegetables and fruits. No more casual smoking. I'd always thought about switching to a healthier diet, and now I am doing it. I have found that the people around me are more important than the things around me.
Joseph Campbell said in one of his books that the meaning of life is the experience of living. I think I know what he meant. The meaning of life doesn't come from some reward in the hereafter, or even from doing good works in the here and now. It's something Candide discovered while working in his garden: My Wonderful Heart Attack has given me more time to experience being alive.
But finally, my Wonderful Heart Attack was truly wonderful because I survived it.