By Gail Blanke / bio

“You’re a very smart lady,” said a voice only slightly muffled by a surgical mask. “You know that?”

“Really, I am?” I slurred. “Why?”

“Because you followed your instincts,” said the doctor. “Because you paid attention to the voice in your head.”

“Oh,” I said. “Yeah. So what did you find out?”

Sriram S. Iyer, an interventional cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital, in New York City, had just finished an angiogram. And, flattering as his words were, he was not all smiles. “Well, it’s more complicated than we’d hoped,” he said. “You have two major arteries that are 80 percent blocked. We need to do some more tests, and then we’ll talk about bypass surgery.”

I must have looked really shocked and upset. I was shocked and upset. “Bypass?” I said. Bypass surgery was definitely not in any future I could imagine. It just didn’t fit with the image I had of myself. “Don’t worry,” Dr. Iyer said. “There’s good news. Your heart’s in perfect condition. There’s no damage anywhere. You’ve got the heart of a 30-year-old.”

“Yeah, and the arteries of the 2,000-Year-Old Man. Tell me the part again about how smart I am.”

Well, big deal. Really, millions and millions of people have had
bypass surgery. In fact, according to the American Heart Association,
nearly half a million people have one or more blocked arteries
“bypassed” every year in the United States. I mean, look at Bill
Clinton, for Pete’s sake. So what’s the big deal?

Here’s the big deal: I’m not the type. I don’t fit the profile for
having heart disease at all. I’m physically fit (I work out almost
every day); I eat healthfully; I’m a high-energy, optimistic (most
days), extremely active person who never smoked. And thanks to the
wonders of modern-day, uh, “cosmeceuticals,” I look like the last
person in the world you’d tag for having heart disease. The very last.
Even if you were in the medical profession.

But that, it turns out, is not good. In fact, had I not in the end
ignored the other voices around me and followed my instincts, Dr. Iyer
might have had no good news to report.

This is what happened: A few
weeks before I found myself in Lenox Hill Hospital, I began to be
bothered by a sort of dark, pressured, achy feeling in my chest. I
referred to it as a “bad feeling.” It would show up in the middle of
the night or when I was climbing the subway stairs or when I was
sitting at the computer. It would last only about a minute and was
always accompanied by really tired arms.

Then, a week before I ended up
having surgery, I was walking along East 52nd Street toward my office
and suddenly felt as if I was about to faint. But it was a hot, steamy
July day in New York City, and I said to myself, “Well, I bet everybody
feels like fainting about now.”

But the bad feeling lasted longer than
usual — and there were those tired arms.

Interestingly, for years when I’d had my annual physical, I’d
mentioned to various doctors that I had occasional heart palpitations
and shortness of breath. Inevitably, one of them would hand me a list
of specialists but say, “I wouldn’t worry about it. Women get
palpitations. It’s probably hormonal. Your electrocardiograms are
perfect, your blood pressure is right on the money, and — look at you —
you’re the picture of health!” (My parents had both had bypasses, but
they had also smoked their whole lives and still lived to a ripe 87.
Anyway, the doctors knew that, too.)

“Yeah, you’re right,” I’d say. And that was always that.

But there I was on 52nd Street with the bad feeling. I barely made
it back to my office. At one point, I thought of stopping at a deli and
asking them to call an ambulance. But I didn’t, and the bad feeling
went away.

When I walked into the office, my assistant, Jane, said,
“You don’t look so hot,” and handed me a cold bottle of water. I sat
quietly at my desk for a few minutes staring out into space. Finally, I
called out to Jane. (And this was the turning point, my friends. This
was when I went from a cavalier, arrogant, and entitled woman who took
her good health for granted to a humble person who actually, for one
brief shining moment, decided to listen to what someone, something —
her own body? — was trying so hard to tell her.)

“Hey, Jane,” I said. “Where’d we put the name of that cardiologist?” I made an appointment for the next day.

Nino Marino, the cardiologist, did an electrocardiogram, which was,
of course, perfect; took my blood pressure, which was perfect; and did
a chest X-ray, which was — guess what? — perfect.

“This ‘bad feeling’
of yours,” he said, “it comes with tired arms, right? I don’t like the
sound of it. I want to do a stress test. Immediately.”

I flunked the stress test big time. Dr. Marino called my internist
to tell him. He “fell out of his chair,” Dr. Marino reported. “He said,
‘There’s got to be a mistake. It’s probably a false positive. Gail’s as
healthy as a horse.’”

Two days later, I went into Lenox Hill Hospital. Two days after
that, I had bypass surgery. Two days after that, I went home. Two
months later, I’m writing this column and really am as healthy as a
horse. Finally.

You know, our busy lives are filled with opportunities to listen to
that small voice inside us that whispers insights about our work, our
children, our parents, ourselves, and, yes, the occasional bad feeling.
But the busy-ness often blurs the message, and we move on to the next
task, sure that when time permits, we’ll circle back and listen.

maybe it’s just that we don’t want to hear it. I work out at a
community center on the weekends, with a woman who exercises
constantly. She also smokes constantly and is nervous and intense. When
I saw her after my surgery, I asked if she had ever had a stress test.
“No,” she said. “I don’t want to know what it says.”

I can’t tell you
how many people tell me that. “I’d rather not know” is a frequent
response to the suggestion of getting a mammogram, a sonogram, a CAT
scan, a colonoscopy, a bone-density test, you name it.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that most of the time it takes a crisis
for us to make any real changes in our lives or in ourselves? Without a
crisis, we just “go along.” We go along with the status quo, the
not-so-hot relationships, the not-so-hot job, the not-so-hot way we
feel. And we wait for something to happen: for it to get better, for it
all to work out, for the bad feelings to go away.

Well, my friends,
waiting doesn’t walk the dog. We know better. We just have to wake up
to the fact that we know better and act on what we know — before the
crisis happens, before the bad feeling takes over.

The day after I got home from the hospital, Abigail, our younger
daughter, spontaneously put her arms around me and told me she loved
me. “Thanks, darling,” I said. “I sure am lucky.”

“I don’t think it was luck, Mom,” she said. “You followed your instincts.”

Here’s what I learned about following my instincts.

1. Be humble.
I was arrogant about my glowing “good”
health. The very thought of heart disease was repugnant to me. Heart
disease happened to other people — the ones who smoked, ate a lot of
fatty foods, and didn’t get off the sofa. You don’t have to be
invincible. You do have to be secure enough to be imperfect, to need
repairs and adjustments. And to get them.

2. Listen.
When the little voice says, “You know what?
This doesn’t add up. I’ve got a bad feeling,” listen and take action.
Don’t wait for directions from someone else (no one told me to go to a
cardiologist) or for the sound of sirens at your front door. This is
your life, my friend, and you’re in charge.

3. Trust the true experts.
When I was in my 20s, a boss
gave me a great piece of advice: “You’ll never know everything about
everything. But there will always be someone who knows everything about
one thing. Go to the experts and ask for help.”

I’ve followed that
advice in every job I’ve ever had, and it always works. My instincts
alerted me to a potential crisis. But it was time to let the doctors
take charge. The evening before my operation, Valavanur Subramanian,
the renowned surgeon who performed the bypass, took my hand and said,
“I won’t kid you, Gail. You’ve got a few things that need to be
repaired. But I can fix them, and I will fix them.”

“I’m all yours,” I
said. And at that moment I made his job about 1,000 percent easier.

4. Tap into your spiritual side.
If you do have a defining
moment in your health or in your life, it is always good to tap into
your spiritual side to help you get through it. When I was lying on the
gurney, waiting to be wheeled into the operating room, I said every
prayer I had ever learned, as I usually do when my back is up against
the proverbial wall.

I also did some serious meditating. I envisioned
myself opening a huge golden door and stepping across the threshold
into a field of infinite abundance and boundless energy. When I saw Dr.
Subramanian, I smiled.

5. Get a stress test.
I’m not kidding.

Special thanks to best-selling author Gail Blanke. Visit her here at her company, Life Designs. This article originally appeared in Real Simple magazine.

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  • Faith Childs April 9, 2008 at 4:39 pm

    As if saving her own life wasn’t enough, Gail Blanke has given me the most rational thought: each of us should allow ourselves sufficient security to permit some imperfection. A truly liberating idea.