One heart attack I could take.

My film professor husband woke up on an early January morning with a pain that radiated from beneath both of his armpits. Not the typical symptoms that you’d find in a doctor’s office brochure: no pain along his jaw, say, or down either arm.

But a deep knowledge settled between us that something might have gone very, very wrong. When we reached the doctor’s office, my husband’s gray face and irregular electrocardiogram landed him in the cardiac wing of the nearby hospital with two major blockages in his arteries.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because the first heart attack is not the story I want to tell. It’s the second one—the Big Kahuna, the one that arrives on shore and wipes out the island once and for all. After my husband did not listen to his cardiologist and did not stop eating lamb chops and sirloin steak and Oreo cookies by the handful; after he did not exercise.

I know what you’re thinking: that he deserved it, or that he willed it. All of which may be true. But it doesn’t solve the problem, my problem. That morning I had to say good-bye to a man I had been married to for 30 years, a man who had left the house in precisely the same way as he had every morning we had been together, leaving a kiss on the back of my head, telling me that he loved me, then walking down the brick walkway to his nine-year-old Rav4 that he insisted still had some good years left.

One heart attack I could take. But two? When they called me—the film department secretary urgently, the doctor from the hospital less so—I told them they were crazy and hung up the phone. They called back and I refused to answer. Eventually, someone got hold of my neighbor and friend, and she came over, walking right in the open front door as she always did. “Ilene,” she told me. “Get back on the phone.”

But what if I told you that the second heart attack didn’t happen? One heart attack I could take. It was the prospect of a second one—one I kept imagining—that I could not bear.

The truth was that J. turned out to be a model patient. He adhered to his heart-healthy diet; he lost 35 pounds. Yet I couldn’t stop worrying. I took the marriage vows to love for richer and poorer, in sickness and health, without once absorbing the hackneyed words. It was only when the bill on that contract came due that I felt how temporary all of this was.

Through the first false alarm a few nights after J. came home from the confusing drift of the hospital, when we ran to the local hospital emergency room with chest pains. Through the second false alarm and the third. Gradually, we navigated our days. We prepared Spartan meals, traveled to the gym to work out on exercise machines, tried to reconstruct who we were before mortality shadowed our lives.

And little by little, the first and only heart attack began to dim, distanced by dinner conversations and movie dates, lunches with friends and walks with the dog. Gradually, the first attack assumed its rightful place: another moment in our entwined histories.

The sole artifact from that day is a canceled parking ticket from the hospital garage, where, on the back, an exhausted Armenian surgeon had drawn a penciled figure of hoses and tubes shaded in deep blacks and grays, a hasty map detailing my husband’s damaged heart.

Last week, almost seven years to the day after that first and only attack, my husband caught my eye. “What?” he asked.

And so I told him: Here is my fear. That you are going to have a second heart attack. That you might die.

“Do you know one of my doctors had a heart attack?” he said. “I asked him, when are you really healed? ‘When you no longer think about it,’ he told me. ‘For a day, a month, a year.’ ”

“Are we there yet?” I asked my husband.

He smiled and looped his arm around my shoulder.

“I think,” he said, “we’re getting there.”


First Person originates at the other end of the stethoscope, presenting essays and commentary from patients, consumers and other medical outsiders. Proto invites your contributions; please send ideas to the editor.