Volume 76, Number 14 | August 23 - 29, 2006

Notebook

A new lease on life, and back in the running again

By Arthur Z. Schwartz

My father died of a massive heart attack when I was 27. He was 58. It seemed that he’d never been sick in his life. He was a physician and knew, or so I thought, how to take care of himself — except for that “bursitis” he complained about in his left shoulder. It turned out it was his heart.

In my conscious mind I didn’t want to see any parallels. My dad smoked a pack of Camels a day until he was 54. His sister’s cancer got him to stop. He drank with the best of them, ate plenty of red meat and lived a high-stress life in the operating room. I chose a high-stress life, but I didn’t smoke, eat much red meat or drink, and I went to the gym. But deep down, I always had a fear that I never would make it to 60. A fear that always had me thinking about how people would remember me when I died. A drive to achieve, sooner than later. I was counsel to my first union at 27, general counsel to the union at Con Edison at 34 and then its parent international union at 37, Greenwich Village District Leader at 42, general counsel to the Transport Workers Union at 47. I felt that I was daring fate by having my third and fourth children at 50 and 52.

Then on July 27, several months after discovering that my cholesterol was high and feeling some tightness in my left chest, and asking my wife’s cardiologist to do an angiogram, I heard the technician say, “You need a bypass.” My doctor cut in, “You have 17 narrowed arteries,” pointing to a TV screen above my head. I had a little Valium on board, so I laughed. He continued, “They’ll need to take five or six veins from your legs and attach them to your heart. It’s not that bad. In six months, you’ll be good as new.” Then, he asked me whether I wanted to do the operation the next morning. I asked what the option was. He said, “Living like you’re 85 for the next week, and then doing the surgery.” I figured, “Why wait?” The rest of the day was spent in preop testing, filling out forms, meeting with my surgeon, etc.

In discussions with my doctors and the surgeon, I was told that I would be in the hospital for a week and that I would need three to four weeks of recuperation at home. I told the cardiologist that I was running for political office, and he said, “Forget about it. No politics.”

I reported to New York Presbyterian-Cornell Weill Medical Center at 6 a.m. on the 28th. I immediately lost my clothes. Not long thereafter, I was told to climb on a table and was introduced to the anesthesiologists. They asked me what I’d like to drink. Almost before I got a word out, I was unconscious.

I awoke at 8 p.m. My first thought was, “I’m alive.” No matter how small they tell you the risk is, when your breastbone is cut open and you are put on a heart-lung machine, the possibility of death creeps into one’s mind. I had tubes coming out of me everywhere — arms, neck, thigh, chest and a breathing tube down my throat. My legs were wrapped from ankle to thigh. I saw my wife, Kelly, and started to kick the bed. The nurse came over and said, “What do you want? Do you want the breathing tube out?” I kicked the bed again. She said, “If you breathe deeply though your nose, I’ll take it out.” At that moment, I gagged on the tube and couldn’t take a breath. She said, “Sorry, you didn’t breathe.” I just closed my eyes and let the morphine overcome me.

Next time, at 11 p.m., when I awoke, I somehow got Kelly to give me a pen. I wrote “tube,” and this time I resisted the urge to gag and breathed. Out it came, and back to sleep I went. Next thing I knew, it was morning and people were giving me things in I.V.’s, giving me pills, turning me on my side because something was leaking, changing my bed with me in it, feeling like a sack of potatoes. Then the pain hit. Like someone had a stiletto pressed into the middle of my chest. I told the nurse, and she asked me if I wanted Percocet or codeine. I asked, “Which is stronger?” When she replied “Percocet,” my choice had been made.

Over the first couple of days, I spent a lot of time watching TV. It was the early days of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. I switched between CNN and Fox, the horrible news only being broken by news of even worse violence in Iraq. I realized as I lay there, that we had become so used to the horrors of Iraq — 50 to 100 people killed a day — that it had almost become a nonstory. But while I recuperated, the world was becoming an ever more dangerous place.

I got out after five days. Cornell Weill is a wonderful place, far more modern, clean and hospitable than St. Vincent’s. I had a room overlooking the East River and shared my nurse with only one other patient. Recovering from open-heart surgery is about managing pain, rebuilding your ability to breathe and regaining your strength and stamina. Every day you are supposed to walk more and more and add to your routine. That is the job that began once I got out of the hospital.

I’ve been lucky. I have a wife who has been through it. She’s both sympathetic and insistent that I exercise properly and rest properly. I have four great kids, ranging from 1 to 19. They have surrounded me, supported me and the little ones have reveled in the fact that I’m home 24/7. I’ve gotten lots of nice messages from people who care. My surgeon said the operation went well and that it will be 20 years before four new arteries he created might need attention. Looks like I’m going to outlive my dad and get to be a grandfather. Another 20 years to achieve some meaningful goals in the world, including spending more time with my kids and my wife.

It’s Aug. 14 as I write this, 11 days since I left the hospital. I went back to my desk this morning. My union friends have organized a Sept. 4 fundraiser for my campaign — if I decided to stay in the race. I feel good, I feel positive and I feel energized. I feel pain, but I can move beyond it. And, always ready to go beyond what the doctor says, I have decided to see my campaign through. I may not see voters at subways and supermarkets, but I watched Lamont in Connecticut. I looked at the leadership of the Democratic Party, and I looked at my kids, who are growing up to a mess of a world, and I knew that it was important to get my message through somehow. The Democratic Party is going to hear from me for another 20 years, and the best time to begin is now.

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