— Yiddish proverb
The ”Framingham scale” is a risk-assessment tool that arose out of an ongoing study centered in Framingham, Massachusetts, into heart disease and the factors that contribute to its occurrence. It takes into account things like personal characteristics, family history, diet, and exercise frequency; based on those criteria, my dad figured he was pretty safe. His family has very little history of heart disease, he eats well, and as was empirically proven not so long ago, he’s probably in better shape than I am. In fact, according to the Framingham model, Dad determined that he had only about a 2% chance of getting heart disease in the next 10 years.
So it came as a surprise when he started having “exertion-induced” chest pains a couple weeks ago. It started when he was doing his usual morning runs, but it progressed to the point where far less strenuous activity — even taking his springer spaniel, Jake, on a leisurely stroll through Cooper Creek Park — would make his chest hurt so much he’d have to stop and sit down. His own doctor suggested that he go in for a treadmill test in the lab at the Medical Center, so he scheduled one for Thursday morning.
My mom, who was out of town all week visiting her own dad in Virginia, called me Tuesday night and asked if, just for her own peace of mind, I would go down to Columbus and accompany my dad to his test. I just had a deadline on a major project pushed from September back to January, so things had quieted down quite a bit at work, and I told her sure, I could spare a day or two off. Dad, of course, thought it was unnecessary; when I called him and asked if he felt like having some company this week, his immediate response was, “Your mom got to you, didn’t she?” When we walked out the door at 6:15 Thursday morning, him in his running outfit, he carried a change of clothes with him in a duffel bag, thinking he’d take the treadmill test, knock it out, then change and go into the office.
Most people — including anyone who runs as much as my dad does — usually go 10 to 12 minutes on the treadmill before it really starts getting to them. Thursday morning, Dad barely even made it to three. His chest started hurting, his EKG spiked, and Dr. Chhokar, the cardiologist, laid him down and broke to us the bad news: There was some kind of lesion blocking one of the major arteries in his heart, and it was serious enough that she wanted to go ahead and take care of it that day. She transferred him down to the cardiac cath lab at St. Francis, and that afternoon they did a balloon angioplasty and inserted a stent into the weakened part of his left coronary artery.
My sister and I saw the pictures right after they brought him out of the lab, and Dr. Chhokar estimated that Dad’s artery was about 98% blocked. Two percent had gone from being Dad’s safety blanket, his reason for being confident in his health, to being the astonishingly thin line separating normal, everyday life from God knows what.
It doesn’t give you a lot of confidence in the rightness and orderliness of the world to know that someone who ate, exercised, and did everything else properly — to the point where he had a better theoretical chance of hitting a double-zero bet on a roulette wheel than contracting heart disease — could still be going into the hospital to try and stave off a coronary, much less someone you love. I told Dad right before he went into the cath lab that if this was all healthy eating gets you, I was going out and getting a fricking Triple Baconator and large fries from Wendy’s. And yet that knowledge, that at any given moment 2% can either be carefree life or imminent death, is also liberating in a weird way: If you know that your chances are almost completely up in the air no matter what you do, doesn’t that give you more license to do the things you want? Eat the Triple Baconator, blow off work to go to that baseball game, go skydiving — you might as well. The chance might not be there tomorrow, and there’s not much you can do about it.
But just as 2% can be two very different sides of the same coin, that freedom brings with it responsibilities. If you know that whatever you have can be taken away from you so randomly, then you’ve got that much more incentive to make sure your “affairs are in order” at any given moment — and not even in a legal sense, but in the sense that you’re straight-up with your family, your loved ones of all stripes, that nothing has been left unsaid or undone. In between Triple Baconators and skydiving, you might also use some of that newfound freedom to hand out an “I love you” or “I’m proud of you,” whether the recipient is expecting it or not — just to make sure there’s no doubt.
I don’t think I’ve been holding back that much on saying those things to my dad, but I guess now I’m going to make doubly sure. I spent a lot of time today thinking about all the things that, had they gone just a little bit differently, might’ve taken away any remaining opportunity I had to do that: What if I’d told my mom I was just too busy to go home this week? What if I’d just ignored her phone call completely Tuesday evening, figuring I was dog-tired and I could just call her back later? What if the treadmill test had been scheduled for one week later, and in that one-week interim Dad went on a run that took him from one side of that 2% to the other?
Like I said, it’s scary to think that all of this might’ve simply come down to Dad, and by extension the rest of our family, being extraordinarily lucky. Maybe even the kind of luck that lets you hit a 49-to-1 bet. But even if that’s all it was, I’ll take it over the alternative. And whatever responsibilities arise out of having to make the most of that luck, I’ll take those too.