I knew in advance what my diagnosis would be. Heart disease ran in my family. Two of my uncles and one aunt died of heart attacks when I was a boy. My father’s death was the closest and scariest example of my susceptibility to the nation’s leading cause of death.
Dad was a strong figure and a stern disciplinarian. We weren’t always close. When I rebelled in my teens it caused a split that lasted almost a decade. I had enlisted in the Navy to get away from home and ended up California, which was about as far as I could get from New York City and still be on the U.S. mainland.
I was given my father's name. It was not until I moved away that I shook the family nickname of “Baby Tommy.” My father was Tom Abate, the man who had remodeled his house from basement to attic, the only college graduate in a family of more than a dozen kids. He had a few distinctive habits. He brushed his hair every night for about 15 minutes, first forward over his forehead and then straight back. His hair stayed black and full until shortly before his death.
When I flew back to New York to visit him after a massive heart attack, I barely recognized the gaunt man with the wispy gray hair who lay on the hospital bed, as light as a feather pillow. Dad’s disease had progressed to congestive heart failure, a condition in which the weakened muscle can no longer pump enough blood to nourish the body. Death comes from wasting away.
I had duly reported this to my doctors over the years. I had tried to watch my diet and exercise. I kept track of my cholesterol, which was under the recommended limits. I did not smoke, a factor that had contributed to dad’s demise just a few months shy of his 58th birthday -- the same age as I am now.
So I was not at all surprised when my general practitioner, Dr. Vin Sawhney, said the burning chest pain sounded like angina, a condition that occurs when fat deposits clog the arteries to the heart and rob it of the blood that is required to power the pump.
Sawhney gave me a simple EKG test to see if I was in immediate danger. When it read normal he referred me to a cardiologist for an exercise stress test, a procedure that takes electrical readings of the heart while the subject walks on a treadmill. Sawhney called the cardiologist to make sure I was seen quickly. Things were beginning to escalate.