Health & Fitness

He had a heart attack at 39. He’s now 92. How he lived so long.

Si Liberman and his wife Dorothy at the Great Wall of China in 2009.
Si Liberman and his wife Dorothy at the Great Wall of China in 2009.

It was a Father’s Day surprise 53 years ago that changed my life.

As the sedative wore off, I found myself tethered to an oxygen tank in intensive care at the Jersey Shore Medical Center in Neptune, New Jersey.

“Get him a private nurse at least for the next 24 hours,” I heard the doctor urge my wife, Dorothy. “When a patient that young has a heart attack, sometimes the blockage reoccurs within 24 hours. … And no visitors other than immediate family members.”

The date: June 21, 1964. I was 39.

Pain in my left shoulder and arm that had awakened me shortly after 2 a.m. on that hellish day had dissipated. I could move my fingers again without straining. But hearing those words from the physician was hardly comforting.

Earlier, in the middle of the night when the summoned doctor, using his stethoscope, said he thought it could be a heart attack, I didn’t believe him and refused to go to the emergency room. The physician stormed out of the house, returned some minutes later with a portable EKG machine and hooked me up. (In those days, doctors made house calls.)

Without saying a word after reading the machine’s ticker-tape-like printed jagged lines, he grabbed a nearby telephone and called for an ambulance.

Hard to believe, too, was that just two weeks earlier I had undergone my annual physical exam with the same doctor, an internist, and came through just fine.

The diagnosis on the hospital nurse’s chart read “myocardial infarction,” words that were foreign to me. Myocardial infarction, I later learned, occurs when an area of the heart muscle dies or is damaged by a lack of oxygen. In other words, a heart attack.

Two weeks earlier I had undergone my annual physical exam with the same doctor, an internist, and came through just fine.

Si Liberman, who had a heart attack at 39

My father, who had heart problems, was among the first visitors that afternoon. In a chair across from my bed, he just stared at me with a pained expression, not saying a word, and tears trickled down his cheeks. I hardly knew what to say except that I was feeling a lot better.

There may have been a warning the day before, but I had shrugged it off. While mowing the lawn, I felt pressure on my chest, and had to slow down. I kept pushing, and went to work that Saturday.

During my 17-day hospital stay and for eight years afterward, I was treated with Coumadin, a blood thinner medication to keep my blood from clotting. “It’s the same drug President Eisenhower has been taking since his heart attack,” my physician, Dr. Emanuel Abraham, told me.

Free of a pressure cooker, smoke-filled newsroom and frequent deadlines, the hospital days were relaxing beyond belief. To do nothing but read a book, watch TV, pop a pill and look forward to the next low-calorie meal was a luxury adulthood hadn’t afforded me.

If anything concerned me, it was not seeing my daughter, then 13, and son, 9, for more than two weeks. They weren’t permitted in the intensive care section. But shortly before I was discharged, Dorothy sneaked my daughter into my private room.

Avoid going up any stairs or driving for at least two weeks after leaving the hospital, the doctor warned. To make sure the blood thinner medication was not working too well and making me hemorrhage-prone, he recommended biweekly blood tests. And for relief from any future chest pains, nitroglycerine was prescribed. Luckily, though, I’ve never felt the need to use that drug, and after developing a shingle-like rash on my thighs eight years later, a likely Coumadin side effect, I stopped taking it.

I came home five or so pounds lighter. Besides a warm embrace, my wife presented me with two new smaller size sport jackets and slacks.

Eight weeks after that fateful Father’s Day, I returned to work with this admonishment from the newspaper’s publisher and co-owner: “During your first week back, only come in for half a day. If I see you at your desk after 12 noon, I’m going to kick your [butt] out of the building.”

In the next 25 years before retirement, I didn’t miss a day’s work because of illness.

Credit a devoted wife who’s health- and diet-conscious, plus an active physical and mental lifestyle that includes a daily mile or two-mile walk and pool swim, and just plain keeping busy.

Life is good, and last week Dorothy and I observed our 68th wedding anniversary.

Si Liberman is a retired editor of the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey