“You haven’t written about my illness,” my husband says. “That means it’s really affecting you.”
He’s right. My silence in this column does mean his illness feels scary, as any heart ailment would. His illness is also complex and confusing. My heart is as troubled as his.
Which leads me to an observation: getting older is like waiting for a storm.
Youth is like Davis in summer: rain is extremely rare. Middle age is Davis in fall: rain likely, nothing big. The years 60 to 70 — my current decade — are more like December. Rain falls, but not serious rain, not a storm that could generate devastating floods.
Floods, if they’re coming, arrive in January or February, months that equal the 70s or 80s in human life. You might be lucky and bounce through each individual year unscathed, but an entire decade rarely passes without flooding, or to drop the analogy, without serious illness.
Am I talking about rain because it’s safer?
Last month my husband who is 64, slim and active, suddenly experienced shortness of breath. The fact that he took action, instead of retreating into denial, has made me very proud of him.
On June 2, while on a fishing trip, he found himself breathing hard after climbing a hill. He told his companion, but the other fisherman explained it away as the result of the altitude (3,000 feet). Bob questioned this interpretation because, as he explained to me later, “I know my body. Hard breathing at 3,000 feet didn’t seem right.”
He returned to work in San Francisco but called his doctor’s office and made an appointment for the following week.
The next morning, however, when he was walking six flat blocks to his office, he started breathing so heavily he had to stop after the third block. He stood there panting and puzzled, until finally he caught his breath. He called his doctor and got his appointment moved up to that morning.
We have to be thankful that his drive home went smoothly. Once he got into the doctor’s office (I went with him), it became clear that we had something big on our hands.
“Walk slowly — or better, get Marion to drive you,” his doctor advised when she sent him across the parking lot for blood work and an echocardiogram — a distance of only a couple hundred feet. An hour later, Bob met his first cardiologist. Two hours later the hospital called to say they had found him a bed.
Shortly after we arrived at Sutter Memorial Hospital in Sacramento, my husband started asking me to write a column about how well he was treated.
He was bowled over by the people he met — one gentle, kind staff member after another — as he underwent testing and prepared for his first night ever in a hospital. Not for a moment did he feel like a cog or a number or an old man.
The next morning he was moved to a special room for his angiogram, a procedure where a tube is inserted, often at the groin, to travel to the coronary arteries and check for defects. After about an hour, the doctor came out to tell me that one artery was completely blocked. They were going to insert at least one stent.
This is one of those modern miracle cures. Not for every patient, of course, but stents have worked for countless people. Treatment for a condition once considered catastrophic is now almost routine.
If we’re lucky, this miracle cure, plus new medications and lifestyle changes should keep Bob free of coronary disease for many years.
He caught his problem early before serious heart damage occurred. So why am I not celebrating? Why does this supposedly solved problem still feel enormous? Am I a hopeless pessimist?
I just went through an unexpected storm. Despite our age, I didn’t expect this storm to occur.
An incident like what just happened to my husband makes risk real. It reminds me that, like other people, I normally function in a state of semi-denial, living behind a self-made curtain that hides the bad parts of life, a curtain that has now been ripped away.
I feel profound empathy for my husband. I also feel loss. I feel fear. I feel lonely today and I feel anticipatory loneliness. People everywhere tell me stories of successful angioplasties that keep men alive until their 90s. I don’t doubt those stories, but I know there are others.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so affected by my husband’s “routine” procedure, but underlying heart disease is still a major issue. And, more to the point, technology can’t erase emotion.
They say El Niño is coming this winter, the big storm. Will it bring too much rain? As Californians, we’re all a bit on edge about water right now.
I’m on edge about health. Worry lives inside me and few things from the outside really help.
I reach out to other seniors, trying to understand how they live day to day with similar concerns. I seek peace of mind despite uncertainty — the precious wisdom we all need, whether about rain or fire or health. This has become more urgent for me right now.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org