This is not a story about my heart attack. It is a story about your heart attack . . . and Houdini.
One day last month I had a great day planned. Lunch with a friend, then two Broadway shows followed by dinner. As I arrived at lunch I had strange pains in my upper body. My chest, shoulders, upper back, and upper arms all hurt in an unfamiliar way. The pains came and went, but got worse towards the night. By the end of the day I felt really bad. REALLY bad. I went home to sleep the pain away.
But the pains got worse. At midnight I decided to Google the symptoms to see what I could find out. All indications directed me to something called Angina. Most alarmingly, every description I read said that if I was feeling these symptoms that I should go to the hospital immediately. I got in a taxi and went. (Hailing a cab in Manhattan is faster than calling for an ambulance.)
When I got to the ER the nurse immediately did an EKG. I didn’t know it then, but she could tell by the EKG that I had a heart attack. They rushed me up to the operating floor. The lead doctor arrived and told me that I had had a heart attack during the day. I laughed, because that is not what I ever expected to hear. She woke the on-call doctors and rushed me into the operating room at 1:30 am.
They put a catheter into my wrist and worked it up to my heart. They found an artery that was 99% clogged. That’s a lot. They had to put three stents in to keep it open.
The doctor told me that people do die with 99% clogging. So I am lucky in that respect. If I had been out of town that day, or worse out of the country, I might not be here to tell this story. Also if I hadn’t Googled my symptoms I wouldn’t have gone to the ER. I considered taking a sleeping pill to fall asleep and just see how I felt in the morning. Any of these decisions could have resulted in my death. So I am pretty lucky.
Why did I Google my symptoms and why did I go to the ER when I could have simply decided to sleep it off? Because I live my life by following an important rule I learned from Houdini.
Houdini received his infamous punch on the morning of Oct 22. As you probably know he was not prepared for the punch and thus he was in great pain as a result. Despite being in extreme pain all day he did his show that night. He had the whole day to either see a doctor or cancel the show. But he did the show anyway.
The next night he traveled by train but he was in so much pain that he was unable to sleep. On Oct 24 his pain was so great that he finally contacted a doctor who told him he had acute appendicitis and advised him to go to the hospital immediately to have surgery. He ignored the advice and decided to do his show that night. He performed that last show with a ruptured appendix and a temperature of 104 degrees.
That night he returned to his hotel and only after speaking with his own doctor by phone did he go to the hospital. He had his appendix removed, however severe damage had already been done. Doctors knew it was very unlikely that Houdini would recover. He died a week later.
If Houdini had acknowledged his severe pain and gone to the hospital that first day, or even after that first show, he might have lived a much longer life. Instead he died at age 52.
By the way, seemingly healthy people are also susceptible to heart attacks, due to the strong genetic component. People like David Letterman or, more recently, ultra-fit trainer from “The Biggest Loser” Bob Harper.
My heart attack did not occur in the commonly thought of way. I do not know exactly when it happened. Point is, you may not know that you had or will have a heart attack. I implore you that if you feel any unusual pain in your upper body or prolonged difficulty breathing go to the ER right away. It will take them about 10 minutes to do an EKG. As soon as they do they will know whether you are in trouble or not. If this message saves one life it will have been worth writing it up.
I have thought about Houdini’s bad decision for my whole life. If you feel symptoms, cancel your show and have yourself checked out. Do not wait till the morning. You may not be around in the morning.
If there ever were strange advice for a magician it is this: Don’t be like Houdini.
[Excerpted from the forthcoming article in Genii magazine, August 2017.]