Sunday, January 23, 2000

Surgery repairs the body, changes the spirit

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        By the time you read this, they'll have cracked open his breast bone to reveal the mysterious science of the heart.

        They'll have taken an artery from my father-in-law's leg and plugged it into his chest. They'll have tied the breast bone back together with titanium wire and stitched his leg back up. He'll have awakened to the familiar faces of his wife and daughters.

        He will have changed. Humbled by the miracle of surgery, more grateful for his days, sobered to know that life is finite, soothed by the closeness of a good family, which is a miracle not duplicated by science.

        He'll still be Sid: Willful, confident, active, interested, engaged and smiling, a real lover of life. But also more vulnerable and, I'm guessing, more reflective and subdued. The miracle of a triple bypass is not so much in the physical repairs it brings, but in the spiritual changes it forces.

        We don't ponder our own mortality much, until it stares us in the face. When we're young, old age is an abstract, somebody else walking slowly or emerging from a wheelchair or complaining of the cold when it's 80 degrees outside.

        You could argue our obsession with eating right and exercising regularly contradicts that. I'll argue that healthy eating is a myth, and we exercise regularly to look good, not to live longer. I work out because it makes me feel good. It also makes the shirts fit better.

        Sid has been exercising daily for 35 years, stretching in the morning, doing abdominal crunches, running on the treadmill later. He's 73 and plays golf two or three times a week, almost always walking the course.

        That's when he felt the pull in the upper left side of his chest. He felt it again after five minutes on the treadmill. It was good he noticed it before his heart seized and someone had to call 911. Also, awful.

        He has been waiting two weeks for the operation, which is a long time to study your own mortality.

        “It's been with me since they told me I'd need the surgery,” he said. “You don't feel like you want to start anything. You know there's a slight chance of something going wrong.

        “At night, when I go to say my prayers, I think about if it didn't go right.”

        The enemy you know is less frightening than the enemy you don't, so in the past two weeks Sid read everything about heart surgery a man could read: This is how it's done. This is why it works. This is what will happen. Should happen. He has steered his fear into a sea of reason, and it has helped.

        Sid worked his whole life in steel mills outside Pittsburgh. At night, to help pay for extras, he ran a repair service. As someone who couldn't fix a leaky faucet without a 40-page manual and a congressional investigation, I can testify: The man can fix anything.

        He's looking at this surgery the way he would a clogged drain. It's plumbing. “If you have a blockage, you go around it,” he said. “The arteries and veins are pieces of pipe.”

        As the people I love have become old, their pull on me has become greater. It's a great gift they are here. It's my good fortune to know them. I also have become more aware of my own frailties: That pain in my back, why hasn't it stopped?

        Last May, my friend Finnerty went to the doctor, with a blocked tube that led from his liver. He left with a diagnosis of liver and pancreatic cancer. He's 46.

        “Mentally, I'm having a hell of a problem with it,” Sid said Monday night. The surgery, scheduled for Tuesday, had been postponed a day.

        It's not getting him down, though. Monday afternoon, Sid bought a new treadmill.

        Happily there is no cure for the human spirit.

        Paul Daugherty, an Enquirer sports columnist, writes a lifestyle column on Sunday. He welcomes your comments at 768-8454.