A book review shouldn’t be personal; however, this one is. Last October, the phone call I received was not the one I had expected. With a 96 year old grandmother on hospice care, I was braced for the inevitable urgent call from my mother. When my husband rang my cell and said, “You have to call your mom. Now.” I was sad, but prepared. I thought. Mom’s words came out in English, but they made no sense. “Your dad was on the elliptical, and he started having chest pains. The ambulance is taking him to the hospital now; they think it’s a heart attack. I need you.” My hand drew a wavering line through my schedule as I told Mom, “I’m walking out the door now.” I remember looking over my shoulder at our poor receptionist. “Refer out the rest of the weekend; my dad’s had a heart attack.”
The experience was terrifying and surreal for the entire family. The warning signs were present: stress eating runs in our family, my physician sister had been bullying my parents with dark mutterings about “abdominal obesity” and “heart disease” for several months, and Dad had a long forgotten stent placed in one of his coronary arteries over ten years before. Still, denial runs deep, and Dad didn’t seem to fit the profile. Sure, a few pounds had crept on with middle age, but he still looks like Harrison Ford. My sister’s warnings were heeded mainly in an effort to get her off of everyone’s back — Stephanie makes her pit bull look passive. Dad doesn’t smoke; doesn’t drink excessively; olive oil, vegetables, and fish already played major roles in my parents’ house; and he was working out. He had just completed his personal best on the elliptical trainer when the chest pain struck.
I wish that I had found Back to Life after a Heart Crisis by Marc Wallack, M.D. and his wife Jamie Colby during that dark October. As a medically literate family, we managed to ask most of the right questions of the physicians and nurses, but we had no clue how to deal with the emotional fallout. Ours is an educated, WASP family — we don’t do emotions or weakness; we do ideas, quips, and stoicism. Of the four of us, my father is the most intellectual, most stoic, and most quippy. I wish I had known at the time what he was experiencing.
Reading Back to Life after a Heart Crisis has been an eye-opener. Back to Life is told not only from a medical perspective, but from a deeply personal first person experience. Dr. Wallack was a high-powered success, a surgical oncologist whose idea of fun was running marathons. Not exactly the poster-child for coronary artery disease. Yet, one day while running in Central Park, the chest pain that he had ignored for several days spoke loudly and undeniably. “The EKG showed a pattern that indicated that my heart was not getting enough oxygen. It meant that I was not the healthy marathoner I’d thought I was. It meant that my life would not go on forever. It meant that I was not invincible.”
With sidebars from his wife, journalist Jamie Colby, Wallack details the course of his disease, bypass surgery, and recovery including his fears, pain, goals, and the reactions of those around him. Back to Life After a Heart Crisis provides clear, jargon-free explanations of heart disease, an honest evaluation of the emotional and physical fallout from a heart crisis, and a comprehensive plan for common-sense recovery.
Surgeons are a notoriously arrogant subset of an already humility-poor profession. To give them their due, they have to be; hesitation and insecurity spell failure in the operating room. However, it is entirely refreshing to see a surgeon express not only weakness, but extreme personal fears. Wallack details each of his post-bypass concerns, from the early dread of sleep to his fears surrounding the resumption of his sex life, and provides coping strategies for each.
Back to Life After a Heart Crisis is like having a purse-sized personal physician — you know, the fantasy doctor seen on TV, the trusted, wise, supportive family friend. Through exposure of his own weaknesses, Dr. Wallack avoids the common medical bullying, and instead writes with compassion for and acceptance of human frailty.
Each chapter discusses a single aspect of recovery. Part I: The Hope provides background on Dr. Wallack’s own crisis, and information about cardiac disease and care. Part II: The Plan is divided into single chapter “Steps” beginning with Step One: Conquer the Night and concluding with Step Eight: Train for a Huge Physical Challenge. Part III: The Support provides just that, the feeling that help is out there; Part III includes a summary, heart-healthy recipes, and a collection of resources.
Marc Wallack concluded his recovery process by running the New York City Marathon. While this may not be within every heart patient’s reach, Marc Wallack and Jamie Colby’s open account of recovery from crisis give the feeling that every patient is capable of going on with life and of living more fully.
Our family’s story ends happily. Four months after Dad’s heart attack, he has walked his younger daughter down the aisle at her winter-fantasy wedding, resumed his job as an attorney in the Federal Court system, begun teaching a law class at a private college, and last week built a Go-Kart with his grandchildren. However, even if he runs a marathon, I’m still giving my parents this book.