SI Vault
Dan Levin
May 20, 1985
Was the chest pain the author felt while running a sign of serious heart trouble? Trying to find the answer cost him many sleepless nights—and $8,983
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May 20, 1985

The Telltale Heart

Was the chest pain the author felt while running a sign of serious heart trouble? Trying to find the answer cost him many sleepless nights—and $8,983

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I told Scheidt that Mordkoff had suggested I have another Wall Motion Study. "That's what I would do," said Scheidt. "But the end of my spiel is this: With two positive tests, your risk might be 20 percent, and if knowing that will keep you from living in peace, let's do the angiogram. It's the only way you're ever going to know for sure."

That Saturday night, Nov. 24, alone in my living room, I kept glancing at a miniature orange tree I'd been given to "save" two years earlier. It had been nearly dead, with only three twigs and a few wan leaves. Now it was two feet high, with almost 100 little oranges. I wondered if I would live to see the oranges ripen.

I was thinking about my father that night. At the age of 47—only a year older than I was now—he had undergone open-heart surgery to repair the mitral valve that had been damaged (we'd always been told) in a childhood episode of rheumatic fever. He developed circulatory problems in his 50s, supposedly related to the valve problem and to heavy cigarette smoking. He died at 61. My father had been a great athlete, not to mention the life of every party he ever attended, and as I watched his illnesses subdue and depress him, I received a subliminal message: If you lose your health nothing is ever much fun again. Now I wondered, what if there had been no rheumatic fever and my father's heart disease had been congenital? All weekend my heart went floomp.

On Monday, on a scale in Mordkoff's office, I weighed four pounds less than I ever had in my adult life, and I hadn't been trying to lose weight. But Mordkoff said that the Holter was normal, that my pulse rate ranged from 152, during my stair climb, to 38 at 7:31 a.m. during sleep. Then he spent 20 minutes giving me an echocardiogram, an ultrasound study of my heart's valve functions, rolling a ball-ended sort of prod all over my chest. But the valves were normal, including the mitral valve.

Then it was Tuesday and I was at Mount Sinai, going for the gold again. The hypothetical top score on the Sinai Stress Wall test apparatus was 200 watts, though no one had ever achieved it. I did. Again I heard cheers—and again bad news. "It's not as bad as last time," Mordkoff said, "but the septum is still abnormal. I would go ahead with the angiogram. You can be admitted to Sinai next Thursday, Dec. 6, have the angiogram Friday, and go home that night, if all goes well. I suspect that your arteries are going to be normal, though two other doctors at Sinai don't. Personally, I think you'll find the angiogram to be a wonderful experience; you're going to find out you're well."

"Sure," I said, "I'll want one every week."

"No, but you're blowing it out of proportion. They'll make a tiny hole in the artery, and advance a very narrow, hollow tube. You'll see it on the screen."

"I'll see it?"

"Yes, it's like a snake, up inside your arm and down into your chest." (I couldn't imagine that watching a snake slither into my chest would be a wonderful experience.)

"Your angiographer, Dr. John Ambrose, has great hands." (Were we discussing a shortstop?)

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