Serious as a Heart Attack

Heart Journeys and the Joys of Exercise

A month shy of his 65th birthday, my dad underwent four-way artery bypass surgery. He had been experiencing shortness of breath and I remember then that he was being deprived of one of his favorite activities: backpacking in the high Sierras and fishing for trout with family.

After consulting his doctors in San Francisco in 1981, he learned that he was a good candidate for open-heart surgery. The mortality rate is two percent, they said. Most reasonable people would assume that those are pretty good odds and choose to have the procedure.

He would be under general anesthesia for eight hours. Yes, he had a low tolerance for drugs in general, but was assured that this was standard.

It was all systems go… until it wasn’t.

All of his vital signs following the surgery looked fine. But he never woke up. The waiting became agonizing.

This was Howard: husband, father, a new grandfather, the hub to the spoke wheel that was our family.

Two days later, without much in the way of explanation (that’s my memory of it, anyhow), the doctors suggested we pull the plug. He wasn’t going to survive the ordeal after all, they said. He ended up being part of the two percent.

Panic. Disbelief. Shock.

One minute you think you’re going in for a life extending procedure and within a day, you are exiting this living realm. No final conversations, hardly any time for goodbyes, suspended animation as you plodded your way through the night and then the next day, and the next day…

Fast forward to 2001. A few weeks after 911, I am building a stone-lined labyrinth in the backyard of my mother’s home. It’s hot. I am hauling rocks, dirt and mulch in a wheelbarrow. Sweating profusely and now beginning to feel light-headed, I find a Cedar tree that my sister and I had planted a couple of decades earlier, plop down at the base of the tree in the shade and try to take in oxygen. I was only marginally successful. 

At that moment, my niece wandered out to visit me. 

“Jessica,” I said. “Would you bring me some water? I’m dying…”

She did. I slowly started to feel better. However, I was concerned enough to make an appointment with my doctor. A week later, in his office, I shared my symptoms and learned that he had just had heart surgery. He listened patiently and, keeping the urgency out of his voice, explained that he was sending me to a local cardiologist. Like that afternoon.

Strapped up with electrode contacts on various places on my chest, I stepped up onto the treadmill and the Electro-Cardiogram test was underway. The print out looked like a Richter Scale indicating a bunch of squiggly lines. The cardiologist returned to the room, picked up the paper feeding out of the printer, looked at it, looked at me, looked at the results again and very simply stopped the treadmill. He began removing the electrodes. 

I thought to myself, this is either very good news… or very bad news.

Without trying to alarm me, he announced that he was contacting Mercy Hospital in Sacramento for their first available opening. I was more than likely going to be operated on in the very near future.


Given my father’s legacy: his clogged arteries, the failed surgical procedure, his unexpected death, my surgery was big news in our family. There was no circumventing the low-level stress immediately resulting from my medical situation.

I was 47 years old. 

My doctor looked like he was 17. I could hardly reconcile the youthful face with his professional  responsibilities. He explained the procedure to me. There was a new technique. Instead of harvesting only veins from my legs, now, in 2001, best practices for heart bypass surgery also used arteries from forearms, as they more closely resemble the arteries around our hearts.


“Doc. You’re me. What would you do?”

He smiled and said, “Well, the procedure is relatively new. It hasn’t been around for 20 years in order for us to gather data, compare case studies, and so forth. But if it was me? Knowing what we know, I’d do it. If you agree, we’ll harvest both the veins in your leg as well as arteries from your arm.”

Based on what he saw, he said I had at least four arteries that were compromised. However, once they were “in there”, if found more, would I consent to having additional arteries bypassed?

My response: “We’re not going back in later. Do it all now.”

Six-way bypass surgery later, I am the result of what I like to call the confluence of medicine, science, and technology.

Two weeks after the successful surgery, the legacy and cold-sweat memory of my father’s plight receding, I drove back to Mercy for a follow up appointment. I was by myself. I parked and went into the hospital. However, I didn’t have the bandwidth to remember my doctor’s name or where his office was located.

It was bizarre. I wandered around, up this elevator, down that hallway, around the corner until I found myself inexplicably at the swinging doors that led into the surgical theater. No one was around, but I could look through the glass windows of the doors and see where I had been under the knife, my heart literally in the surgeon’s hands, just two weeks before. 

Was this a dream?

Fortunately, a nurse came along and asked if she could help me. Her confusion as to how I could have penetrated the inner rooms of the surgery department matched my own. Eventually, I found my way to the doctor’s office and, later, home. I remember him telling me: “I’ve done the cutting and bypassing, now you do the regenerative tissue part, okay?”

I never smoked tobacco. I did my share of drinking and eating of fatty foods, but short of tennis and softball in my youth, I did not exercise. 

My job after high school was driving around San Francisco and picking up and delivering dry cleaning and finished laundry, a continuation of my father’s business. At the very least, I didn’t have a desk job. I was required to get in and out of a classic delivery truck.

The Classic Delivery Truck: A 1970 Chevrolet Suburban.

Fast forward again to 2015. I continued to not exercise and to drink and eat with self-perceived impunity. I was finally convinced to go to our local pool and at least try a water aerobics class.


I am not a swimmer, having never taken lessons. I hate the sun and generally try to cover myself up with clothing, hats, and, occasionally, sunscreen. I have always sought shade. I just didn’t have the skin or desire for full-on UV exposure.

When I finally relented and took a class… Boom! That was it. I loved it! 

It was taught on the deep side of the pool which necessitated strapping on a foam belt to assist suspension in the water. In theory, your feet should not touch the bottom of the pool. There are also shallow water exercises and classes, but by then (I was 59 years old in 2015), my knees wouldn’t tolerate bouncing up and down on the floor of the pool.

I got hooked on this form of exercise and soon answered the call to teach. It wasn’t a hard choice to make. I have a musical background. I am an entertainer. I easily parroted exercises from the excellent teachers who had taught me and soon created my own rhythms and sequences.

I have now been teaching for nine years. Mind you, I teach from in the water. So I am doing every exercise and the accompanying heart-pounding sprints with the people who take my classes. 

I never ask my students to do anything I wouldn’t do.

My claim to fame is the music I provide for each class. I consider the music to be my partner in this endeavor. I have downloaded all of my favorite tunes from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It is danceable, 110 beats per minute, and ranges from funk, rock ‘n roll, disco, to Latin influenced and more. Fifty five minutes of very upbeat music closing with another five minutes of a cool down song. 

I have over 25 hours of playlisted music and it is my joy to get people moving in the water. The music is very, very LOUD! I shout out the exercises to be heard over the music. It’s a party four times a week and my regulars keep showing up. We are all getting stronger. I pick up the pace, and then they match with their increased efforts. It’s so impressive and so rewarding.

The exercises are standard, but I manage to mix them up, put them in different sequences and keep the class moving along at a clip. At the beginning, I emphasize that this is a non-talking class. If you’re talking, you’re not working hard enough and distracting those who take the workout hour very, very seriously. That said, I am also quick to remind them that hard work looks different for each one of us. I make it a point to encourage us to give ourselves and each other grace. To meet ourselves where we are at at any given day or time in our lives. I am happy to say that this class is at an all time height of popularity.

Demonstrating the Crane Pose for a laugh before strapping on my belt and joining my students in the water.

I have good one-on-one relationships with the students, many of them my age. We all are aging. No one is getting out of this alive. We all have diminishing physical abilities and challenges with our joints: hips, ankles, knees, and shoulders. We have a variety of surgeries that we are rehabbing from at any given time. There are doctor appointments, Physical Therapy sessions, personal mobility and balance to try and improve and sustain.

I attempt to meet people where they’re at physically and mentally, but I also do this for myself. I resisted exercise all those years, and although it is a big part of my life now, I know that it is not going to save me. My clogged arteries were 95% hereditary. My dad died from complications of coronary artery disease. I had my own close call and will likely succumb to it eventually.

But I mindfully work on improving my life. My attitude is upbeat, positive, and reality based. My loving nature gives me a sense of responsibility for helping others. We have a bond. They come to class. I crack a few jokes to keep things loose and moving forward.

But I also know how seriously everyone takes their exercise regimen. I honor that. We work hard, enjoy elevating our heart rates to loud, awesome music and we do it over and over and over.

I crave the responsibility.

I’m expected to show up and provide structure and fun.

It brings joy.

I’ve been sober for six years now. I have a pot belly. I live richly and intend to continue to do so as I age. Without guile. Without regret. 

I’ll love and be loved.

I’ve taken to heart the advice of my violin-playing bandmate, Dave Holob: Gonna ride this wave all the way into the beach.


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One Comment

  • Excellent article, Adam! I recall an old Art Linkletter TV personality authored book that had a title something like “Growing Old
    isn’t for Sissies.” When I sold my newspaper in Morgan Hill, CA in 2005 at the age of 65, I made the mistake of sitting on the back of our boat drinking Pepsis because that is what you do in retirement. That earned me diabetes. It took me until this year to get serious about changing my diet and exercising more. Now I’m a salad freak. I buy the Medteranean salad kit at Trader Joe’s and add lots of good things
    in it like sliced red onions, tomato slices, an avocado, cheese chunks, and grapes. For the first time in my life, I joined a gym–Valley Fitness gym in our neighborhood, which is free thanks to our Senior Advantage health insurance. I took two falls on my bicycle so thought
    God was trying to tell me to use the stationary bike at the gym which has a video screen on it where I visit Paris, France and other countries
    like Germany for 30 minutes, then do about 12 chest presses on another machine. I’ve lost 20 lbs–from about 200 down to 177 and am hoping to get to at least 175. My medical numbers have greatly improved and it is now easier than ever to eat less (and save money from not eating in all those over priced restaurants where my favorite pizza and sandwich place now charges $1.50 just to use a credit card!

    Thanks for your effort in writing a great article! Wish you were closer and I would take your class.

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