A Happy Birthday Balloon in Your Heart

On February 1, 1988 my father spent his 48th birthday, his last birthday, in the hospital getting an angioplasty which is a procedure to open narrowed or blocked blood vessels (coronary arteries) that supply blood to the heart. As a 12 year-old I remember hearing it as; “your dad is getting a balloon in his heart”. The expression on one of the doctor’s faces was one of casual hopelessness which was warranted as that procedure was not a cure for a very sick man’s underlying problem of having diseased lungs and an enlarged heart. What my dad really needed was a heart and double-lung transplant, not a band-aid in the form of a balloon, but this was the best the doctors on staff could do at the time. And they knew it.

For two years my dad had been in and out of hospitals countless times to stabilize his condition. It seemed like every other day I got a pink slips from the principal’s office- “go to Kathy’s after school, your dad is in the hospital”. My dad endured these dark days by taking a mountain of medicine and walking slowly with compromised breathing while wearing a beeper which would alert him of an organ(s) donor match. He was exhausted and resolved to the fact that he was dying. Soon. I got my Crayola markers out and made him a “Happy Birthday” sign which I tacked onto the board in his hospital room. It was the most depressing birthday ‘celebration’ I had ever encountered. There was no joy and no hope yet he was alive. Barely. This is not how I want to think about someone who is 48 years old.

I feel so removed from this day long, long ago but it’s impossible for me not to reflect or remark on my father’s “missed” or “unrealized” or “non” birthday in some way. I realize a memory from 31 years ago may not be as sharp as it once was, so I try to remember a detail or two and look at the event from another perspective in honor of the day. I wonder why he needed his coronary arteries ballooned open on his birthday. To me, clogged arteries conjures up images of greasy, fatty food but I do not recall ever hearing about eating habits, diet or nutrition in relation to my father’s treatment or condition. I can tell he was an amazing Italian cook and our house was stocked with the latest and greatest traditional Italian fare and heavily-processed, sugar and sodium-rich, artery-clogging, foods from Dunkin to Kraft. I believe procedures like angioplasty and stents are imperfect ways to help prop open arteries from being blocked by Dunkin and Kraft. And I know there is another way to help prevent a blockage in the first place. If the doctors or my dad would have known the impact of having those foods on his plate day in and day out or NOT having them, it could’ve changed the trajectory of many lives. Maybe he would’ve had the often-wished magical “more time”. But I am absolutely at peace with the fact that he did not and his death has made me the person I am today, a woman focused on optimal health, nutrition and longevity.

My dad was the kindest man who let me into his mind and heart through his unfortunate struggle for life. I fault him for nothing regarding his habits for he did not know or realize how it impacted his quality of life or death. If he had known I don’t take him for someone who would’ve looked into his young daughter’s eyes and said, “but cheese is so good.”

His health history of stroke and heart disease is an undying reason that 31 years later as I approach his death-age I spend my free time learning about health and the power of food as a tool to help protect my own health and to help me avoid the medical procedures and diseases like the ones he endured. I’ve heard many case studies and personal stories about cardiologists helping patients reverse and AVOID these needless blockages/heart disease through diet and lifestyle. One day while I was running I listened to a podcast by Dr. Dean Ornish who spoke about reversing heart disease in his patient who needed a heart transplant. That one got me.

Learning about how to improve health is empowering to me and I find it fun. It’s like I am decoding the secret to “How to Escape Your Bad Genes”, or at least “How to Escape Your Inherited Bad Habits”. I spread informational articles and my knowledge along to those willing to read or listen because I don’t want people to experience (or inadvertently cause) the pain I endured. I was a happy pre-teen who lost her father and so much more. My world was forever changed by his death and my life’s path took dramatic and unexpected turns at times that sound like a dark, fantastical fictional story I would not want another human to experience.

I could’ve posted “Miss you, Dad. Happy 79th Birthday.” Instead, I just spent 3 hours writing about why and how my dad spent his last and 48th birthday in a hospital bed and how his death taught me to care about life, which I just shared with you. He was a great teacher through his life and through his death. I am compelled to live with his love in my heart and to unapologetically try to inspire good in this world. Thank you.