Who me? A heart attack? There must be some mistake

The symptoms were unmistakable. Tightening in the chest, nausea, sweats. I was having a heart attack.

Moments later, circled by emergency medical technicians, one EMT bent down and told me, “You’ll be OK. This happened to me last year.”

“I’m glad to see you here,” I said.

His was an act of kindness I will never forget, even if we were not in circumstances permitting formal introductions.

Being fatheaded, I assumed this couldn’t happen to me. I was in great shape. For the last seven months, I’d been walking 24 miles and more a week. I’d lost 14 pounds. I was bulletproof.

Wrong. The ugly truth is, my lockdown diet would not have passed as heart-friendly. More butter, please. (Experts say exercise, diet, genetics and anti-cholesterol drugs can all play a role in heart health.)

I don’t know the names of most of the people who helped me last week. They know who they are. They are EMTs and firefighters, doctors and nurses, other health professionals. This is what they do every day.

It’s obvious, I suppose, but the experience reminded me that there are countless people whose jobs involve helping their fellow humans live longer and healthier lives.

And we’re brainless when we take those people for granted. (If you think I’m going to complain about taxes or the cost of health care after surviving a heart attack, you would be wrong.)

A visit to a hospital also becomes a reminder of how technology is transforming health care. These fancy machines and new techniques matter. They guarantee less intrusive treatments and better outcomes.

Seeing people looking out for each other, I also thought about the toxicity of our politics and how it’s given license to some eager to undermine faith in public institutions. EMTs, firefighters, police, Medicare, Social Security? Who needs government anyway?

The outgoing president is not the first politician to promote division and cynicism, but he’s earned his reputation as the most visible and effective practitioner. When the president feels the need to insult and belittle anyone and everyone who disagrees with him, he sets the wrong tone for a country that desperately needs to move past the current discord.

Ironically, President Donald Trump likely would have been reelected if he had tried to unite the country in the battle against COVID-19 — sympathizing with victims, honoring the courage of health care workers, rallying the country to pull together. Instead he chose to politicize the issue, turning people and regions against each other.

Now we worry that new vaccines won’t be effective because people won’t believe assurances they are safe.

The problem with our lack of trust in public institutions can be simply stated: If we lose faith in everything, we have nowhere to go. We have no future.

In many ways, a heart attack becomes an education.

You learn about occlusions, stents, heart-friendly diets and managing your return to regular exercise. You learn about organizing a sudden rush of new prescriptions. Which pills do I take in the morning, and which do I take at night? (For a person inexperienced in the world of prescription drugs, this always seemed a simple task — until I was required to actually do it.)

It’s an adventure, made more palatable by this account from “The Mayo Clinic Heart Book”: “Believe it or not, most people eventually view a cardiac events as a positive experience in their lives. They commonly report physical improvements such as weight loss and enhanced fitness. … In addition, they identify social and psychological benefits such as stronger relationships with their spouse and families, healthier self-image, better ability to deal with work pressures and an awakened enthusiasm for the simple pleasures of life.”

I can testify that a heart attack requires you to slow down, put away the baggage you’ve been carrying around and identify what’s most important in life.

The book was the offering of a friend, sharing what she learned from her experience with heart problems. Friends become a blessing at a time like this. (You also learn that people you know have been walking around with stents in their chests.)

Where we live, thousands of people — paid workers and volunteers — show up every day to help folks in need. They recognize that all of us will need help at some point in our lives. For a society desperate to recapture some semblance of unity — some confidence that better days lie ahead — they can be our role models.

At the last, I’m grateful for all the people who helped me, including the EMT who offered words of reassurance and cardiologist Dr. Sanjay Dhar and the team at the Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital cath lab. Without their care, I was in big trouble. I’m also grateful for my wife, Jill, whose love and support makes all things possible. She is always up for a challenge (which is why she married me).

I’m told to go slow for now and restrict my diet, but I feel great, and for that, I credit the blessings of family, friends, a first-class health care system and the dedication and skill of strangers.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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