Feet Don’t Fail Me Now

On Friday, once again, I cancelled my elective bilateral foot surgery, cheilectomies to ameliorate the effects of decades of running miles a day on hard pavement and wearing high heeled shoes to work. Like many other physicians faced with the dilemma of elective surgery, the “what-if’s” got the better of me—what if I get an infection, what if I have a poor result and am worse off than before, what if—god forbid—I end up with an amputation?  In the end, I opted out.  Six weeks after retiring from my job running a satellite radiation therapy facility for our local university practice, I am having far too much fun traveling, writing, gardening and culling the accumulated belongings of sixteen years in one house to undergo a forced “lay-up” for the summer.  The pain I know is preferable to that which my imagination can manufacture.  In short, I am a chicken.

Prior to becoming a chicken, I had always been an athlete.  At age seven, a swimming instructor announced to my mother, “She’s got talent!” and the next thing I knew I was trying out for the old Shamrock Hilton swim team in Houston, Texas.  To this day, the audition remains crystal clear in my mind—the coach asked me to swim the length of the fifty meter outdoor pool.  I had never seen a pool so enormous, but I resolved to try.  After all, what was the worst that could happen?  I jumped into the deep end reasoning that if I didn’t make the whole distance, at least by the time I tired, I would be able to stand up.  I reached the shallow end and touched the flagstone, gasping for air.  I stood up.  The coach said, “Okay, great, now SWIM BACK!”  I looked at my mother and began to cry.  She commanded, “DO IT!”  And so I did, despite the fact that the deep end loomed like a dark lagoon ahead.  I made the team.  Ultimately, my small stature and dogged nature suited me best for distance events—the 400 meter individual medley, the 1500 freestyle. The fact that I had once been daunted by swimming 100 meters seemed ludicrous a year later.

I graduated from high school one year before the passage of Title IX, the law that ultimately mandated athletic scholarships for women at every public university that offered the same for men.  With no incentive to continue a grueling five hour a day routine which produced green hair, bloodshot eyes and oversized shoulders, I turned to running for exercise.  And run, I did, for the next thirty five years—on the road, on the treadmill, in hot humid Houston and freezing snowy Boston—I ran away my fatigue, my stress, my disappointments and my sleep deprivation.  At age thirty one, after two residencies, I looked to be about eighteen years old, and so I wore heels, to make myself taller, more imposing, more apt to be taken seriously by patients and peers. Oddly enough, that strategy seemed to pay off, when my introduction of myself as “Doctor” no longer resulted in the question, “Really?”

The year before we left Boston in 1992, I watched the “Marathon Man” Johnny Kelley run his last full Boston Marathon at age 84.  Many years later, with these feet broken down from walking on tip toe when not running on asphalt, I am no Johnny Kelley. My running days are over for good, and even my walking days are fewer and farther between.  But as I contemplate the various ways in which our bodies fail us as we age—cancer, heart disease, stroke and dementia—I am thinking that arthritis and bone spurs aren’t all that bad.  I can always go back to the pool.  Or maybe get that little buckskin Quarter Horse I’ve always wanted.  There is no landscape, emotional or physical, that isn’t improved by the view from the back of a good horse.  I’ll get around to fixing those feet one of these days, sooner or later.  Probably later.

Pass the Butter Please


With gratitude to Doctors Rafael Espada and Michael Madani, for fixing my father’s heart, twice.


When Michael Phelps was interviewed during the Beijing Olympics, the world first learned about the extraordinary amount of food needed to fuel the swimmer with the wingspan of a pterodactyl. He said that he ate 12,000 calories a day, and no one believed him except for me. I believed him because I too was a swimmer in my youth, and a distance swimmer at that. Breakfast consisted of two scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese, a few slices of bacon, buttered toast, and a half grapefruit or cantaloupe. Lunch was a sandwich and chips followed by a whole package of Hostess cupcakes or snowballs—I particularly liked the snowballs because I would peel the pink marshmallow and coconut topping off the chocolate cupcake and eat that separately “for dessert.” Dinner was typically a slab of beef, potatoes au gratin or baked with butter, cheese and sour cream on top. Oh, and there was always a vegetable—to this day I can eat two heads of broccoli all by myself. After dinner, an entire bag of Chips Ahoy cookies usually kept me company while I did my homework. And this being Texas, barbecued beef or ribs, or both, fried chicken and biscuits slathered with butter and honey were Sunday treats. I swam four to five hours a day, and I was skinny, and I never gave heart disease a single thought, not even when my granddad dropped dead of a massive heart attack at age 75.

When my father turned seventy five, the same age we lost Grandpa, he thought that maybe he should have a stress test. He never had any symptoms—he was just a tiny bit superstitious about the fact that seventy five seemed like a good age to have a heart attack, or perhaps to avoid one. His internist obliged, somewhat begrudgingly since there was no history of chest pain or palpitations. His stress test was floridly positive, and before he could say “Boo” he was in the cath lab having a coronary angiogram. As the dye flowed, the images showed triple vessel disease, with greater than 90 per cent occlusion of the left main coronary artery. They call that lesion “The Widowmaker”, and that’s what it had done to my Grandma. As the interventional cardiologist tried to pass a stent, my father experienced a run of ventricular tachycardia—an arrhythmia which is basically “pre-death.” The next thing he knew, he was waking up from triple bypass surgery and he was madder than hell at all of us, his family, because he knew all along that there was nothing really wrong with him and we made him go through with surgery.


A week ago at age 87 my father had his second open heart surgery, to replace a worn out stiff old aortic valve. He’s a pretty tough old bird, and he made it through, although his post-operative course has been a little rocky. About a month ago, before the surgery we went out to dinner with some new friends that Dad had made in San Diego, a couple that live across the street from me. They warned us ahead of time that they were a little bit “fanatic” about their diets. I did not know what they meant. He, like Dad, is a retired plastic surgeon, handsome and fit. She is a realtor, elegantly dressed, thin and very persuasive. We went to an Italian restaurant, and as drinks were served, the waiter brought out warm freshly baked bread and butter. As is our habit, my father and I reached immediately for the bread and butter. Our hostess eyed the butter Dad had placed on the little bread plate, and then proceeded to snatch both butter and plate, depositing them on the other, unoccupied side of the table. She said authoritatively, “Mel, you can NOT go on eating butter. Not with your heart being the way that it is.” I was astonished. I had never seen anyone do that to a virtual stranger in a restaurant. Not to mention the fact that it was a tiny bit late to be taking the butter away from my father. He was not happy about it either.


This got me to thinking. I haven’t been particularly good about restricting my calories, watching my fat intake or about exercise as I have gotten older. The pounding of my hip joints repeatedly against the cement walls of the pool during endless flip turns, coupled with another 30 plus years of jogging on asphalt roads, taken up when my swimming years were over, have taken their toll on my joints. I adore butter and ice cream and red meat. I’ve gained 20 pounds over my “fighting weight” and love comfort food in the truest sense—I use it for comfort in times of stress. But it seems now, as I sit by my father in his hospital bed, that there is a choice to be made, since my genes have declared themselves as least as far as heart disease is concerned.


When we lived in Boston thirty years ago, we used to like to eat at two restaurants in Somerville. There was a barbecue place right next to a health food restaurant. I can’t quite remember the name of the barbecue place but I think it might have been Sam’s. The health food restaurant was called Jaye’s. Each of them had a big sign out in front—they were competitors of course. The health food restaurant sign said, “Eat at Jaye’s, Live Forever!” The barbecue restaurant sign said, “Eat at Sam’s, Die Happy!” The question for me, and in fact for all of us is, “What’s it going to be?”

On Friendship, by Jackie Widen

My adult daughter and I were having a discussion recently about friendships.  She is at that awkward age – mid 20′s and graduated from a college that is now 2,000 miles away, early married and living in a city different from where she grew up.


Her circle of friends has changed over these past couple of years and it distresses her.  During a great chat about the nature of friends, their evolution and how some friendships change with age, life events and geography, we were able to identify two basic types of friends.  The first type is those you meet up with in common activities–your school class, the gymnastic or cheerleader squad you’re on,  student council, your various carpools, the church youth group. Growing up, there are limitless opportunities to encounter situations where everyone has a commonality with you.   College brings on another fertile breeding ground for friends– the dorm, campus life, parties.  As the years pass and majors are fine-tuned, you find yourself with a familiar group of friends who are taking those final courses for that specialized degree.  Pacts are made to always remain close, no matter what, and for a while, those promises are easy to keep.  But then life and choices sometimes alters those bonds.


As the years pass these “passage friends” fall away.  Phone chats are forced or inconvenient and interests change.  People marry and begin lives that suddenly involve a new circle of acquaintances.  But then there is the second type — those special friends who stay in your heart no matter the time spent away, the miles apart, the changed interests,  the new job.


Kind of like me and Miranda.


I like to call this type of friends “forever friends” because no matter how your life changes you always have a touchstone with these special people.  I find it more so with women than men who don’t communicate as well in general.  They don’t call up their bestie to cry when their Dad suddenly dies, or when they find out they are having twins with already a 2 and 4 year old.


Miranda and I are polar opposites.  We met when we were 10 years old and swimming for opposing teams.  We swam different strokes and seldom competed against one another, but we were both the best at our respective events.  Circumstances brought us to join a third team during our teen years and that’s when we really became good friends.  We lived close to one another and our mothers teamed up for carpooling to and from our 2 -a day workouts  in Houston.  Back in the 1960′s we could whip across the Houston freeways from the southern areas to Memorial in 20 minutes.  Now it would take more than 20 minutes just to gain access to the freeway.  By the time I turned 14 -legal driving age back then – I was given the keys to the family vehicle and I drove us to and from our practices.  I remember when we stopped at the convenience store after morning workouts to get giant Slushees and candy bars.  We used to compare the new eye shadow colors we liked.  We even shared a boyfriend.  No!  It wasn’t anything naughty – it was just an innocent crush on a guy who turned out to be a Blue Ribbon Jerk.  But he drove a red Corvette!


Miranda was Jewish and I was Methodist.  That didn’t seem to matter.  In our spare time during the spring and summer we put on our little bikinis and lay out by her pool to get some color on our pale bodies.  Practicing in an indoor pool didn’t allow much tanning.  When we were bored we would look at her father’s slides; all those plastic surgery cases.  Sometimes we would wish we could trade hair.  Mine was stick straight and I had to force it to curl.  Hers was curly and frizzy and she would slather on the gel to make it behave.


We chose different adult life paths.  After college I married and spent my time on the Mommy Track raising 4 small children spaced way too close together.  She went off to be brilliant in medical school and excel at her challenging Internship and Residencies.   I would ask her “Isn’t it difficult to do all those long rotations?” and she would smile and answer “Not as hard as our swimming workouts.”  And when she learned I had juggled all those kids with an alcoholic husband for over 25 years – she asked “Wasn’t that horribly awful?” and I would answer “Not as hard as our swimming workouts!”  Though our commonality was rooted in our swimming days, little did we know we would be bonded for life because of discipline and hard work.


We’ve made the effort to try and stay in touch during the past five decades.  Gee whiz – Did I say decades?  She lives in California and I live in Texas.  When we do have dinner or occasionally chat on the phone it is like the years dissolve and we are still teenagers.  As I approach a very significant birthday, I am profoundly grateful for my “forever friend”, Miranda.  We have birthdays only 2 days apart, and so I always think of her when I celebrate my special day.  This year, my 60th (yes I am the senior, she is a baby at nearly 59) I would like to say Thank you Miranda, for being a Forever Friend.  It is a rare and special thing to call you a friend for 50 years.  As I toast myself this coming weekend, I will raise a glass for you too.  Life is so very short and we need to remember the things that matter in our lives:  Faith, Family and Friends.   Especially Forever Friends, like me and Miranda.  Happy Birthday to us!


Thank YOU Jackie!  I couldn’t agree more.  Miranda