I was waiting in an exam room in my cardiologist’s office, watching the clock. My appointment was for 5:40. It was now 6:45.
“He’ll be just a minute,” an assistant said, poking her head into the room. “Hang in there.”
“If I’m the lowest priority in the cardiologist’s office,” I said, “That’s a good thing.”
“You’re absolutely right.”
I hadn’t seen my cardio guy in a while so I was a bit nervous. Last September I passed my nuclear stress test with flying colors but the bloodwork showed my good cholesterol had taken a bit of a nose dive. I had also gained a few pounds in the interim so, I hoped my new statin drug was doing its job.
A few minutes later I heard the doctor talking outside my door. “No,” he said to someone. “Tell him he cannot have ice cream every night! What is he thinking?” Then the door flung open and he buzzed into the room.
“The Oprah guy,” he said, shaking my hand. “How’s it going?”
“No repeats of the problem,” I said. “So the meds are working. But I gained some weight.”
“Are you exercising?”
“I slacked off for a while,” I said. “Then I got back to it. Five days a week.” Then I described my fitness routine.
“Interval training is good,” he said. “Very good for your heart.”
“I feel better.”
“Why did you slack off?”
“The whole family got the flu in December. Then I got gastroenteritis. Then my dog took a turn for the worse and I was stressed out about him. He died in February.”
The doctor shook his head. “That’s the worst. I remember when my dog died.”
“When he was being put to sleep I was worried I’d have a heart attack.”
“I know how that feels.”
The doctor listened to my heart and asked the usual questions. Then he reviewed my EKG and bloodwork. Everything was fine. My cholesterol levels were very good.
“Lose the weight,” he said. “Keep going to the gym. It’ll help you in all sorts of ways. Then he told me he was tweaking one of my meds and handed me a new script.
“Get another dog,” he said. “Your child is still little. “
“I know. I said I’d wait a year until replacing him.”
“I still have my dogs ashes,” the doctor said. “I never buried them.”
“Me too,” I said. “I have no idea what to do with them. “
“I have his on a shelf.”
“I might do that too,” I said. “What kind of dog did you have?”
“A golden retriever.”
“When did he die?”
“Ten years ago.”
“Never wanted to get another one?”
The doctor just shrugged. “My kids are all grown up….”
I first met my cardiologist when I was lying in a hospital bed at three in the morning, thinking I was going to die. Scared shitless, I listened to him tell me I wasn’t departing this vale of tears anytime soon. “Little procedure,” he said. “Shock your heart back into rhythm. No worries.” When I walked out of the hospital the next afternoon I thought my doctor was a god.
Now, sitting on his exam table almost four years later, I knew my doctor wasn’t a god – just another guy who missed his dog. I wondered if he didn’t get another one because the loss of his retriever had been too painful. I don’t blame him one bit. Love always exacts its price in sorrow and how we manage those costs is a very personal thing. If we listen, our hearts will tell us how much love we can handle until it breaks. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that those limits are different for everyone. My cardiologist has to protect his heart too.
Driving back home, I called my wife and told her to forget collecting on my life insurance policy. Then I turned on the radio and listened to Chet Baker and Bill Evans playing, “Almost Like Being in Love.” As Chet trumpeted triumphantly I thought about Buster and, for the first time since he died, I smiled at his memory. Thanks to my doctor, my wife, my daughter, friends and family, my ticker’s still very strong. I’ll get another dog.
My heart hasn’t reached its limit.