Journalist, critic and memoirist Thomas Larson is the author of the recently released The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease (Hudson Whitman/Excelsior College Press). In this gripping memoir, Larson shares a powerful and personal story of “what happens when our arteries fail us.” He narrates the dramatic tale of his three heart attacks in five years. Slowly waking up to the genetic legacy and dangerous diet of his past, Larson discovers a path to healing that his partner, Suzanna, insists he—and she—put into action.
In recognition of Heart Awareness Month, Excelsior Life recently sat down with Larson to discuss the memoir, heart disease and embracing mortality. In part one of this four-part series Larson details the gripping opening scene of his memoir, the event that started it all and forever changed not only his life, but his relationship with Suzanna and his family.
Editor’s Note: Below is an edited transcript.
Excelsior Life: I think the best way to start our conversation is maybe with the gripping opening scene of your book. You’re teaching a class, all of a sudden drenched in sweat, with no idea what’s wrong. Can you take us through those moments?
Larson: Ok, I have to relive them again, huh? (Laughter). This was almost 8 years ago and I remember it vividly. It was a Monday night and I was teaching a writing class at a local college.
A couple days prior I had gone on a hike with a friend of mine. We were going up a hill, but it wasn’t real steep. He would later tell me that on that hike I was bending over, my tongue flapping out of my mouth like a St. Bernard, hands on my knees. I was showing an unusual tiredness that he had never seen before – although he didn’t remark about it at the time.
The day of the heart attack I started having these really uncomfortable feelings. The sensation is that you have a bug. You have something inside you. You feel possessed by something that shows up and won’t go away. I went upstairs in our two-story house and I was in a bit of trouble. I was out of breath after walking up 12 steps, which really confused me.
So I got in the car and I drove to college which was only five minutes away. And I tried to start the class but I couldn’t. I was feeling really awful. I said “excuse me” and went to the bathroom. Sometimes you feel that it is indigestion or heartburn, if you relieve yourself, you’ll feel better. But the feeling intensified.
So being a good college instructor I went back and thought I’ll just tough it out. A three hour class! I lasted about three minutes. I tried to discuss the assignments and I was just swamped by sweat and this sense that something had shifted inside me.
I heard myself say to the group “I got to leave” and at that moment I felt myself kind of split. Half of me was having this heart condition, this heart attack, and I didn’t quite know it. The other part was trying to save me. That was a very interesting dynamic. I was very lucky. I was one minute from a hospital.
I drove myself in and said “I think I’m having a heart attack.” And I was right.
Excelsior Life: So you were given an angioplasty. I guess it’s me being naïve on the issue, but I had no idea patients were even awake during this procedure. What were you feeling as that was going on? Did you know that you were dying, as a nurse would later say to you?
Larson: Ummm, no. And it was a cardiologist that said that to me. I have a short chapter reflecting on this fact. “Do we know that we’re dying?”And in fact we are. By the time I got to the catheter lab and they started doing the angioplasty I was in the best place I could be if I were to be saved.
A heart attack occurs due to a lack of blood to the heart muscle itself because one or more of the arteries is blocked. Two of mine were blocked which is why I had strong symptoms. The pain was very intense, I was sweating, and I had that feeling of possession I had never had.
Once you get in the hospital, you know they have drugs that to calm you, to bust the clots in your blood stream. They can save you and they literally do this all the time. Doesn’t mean the angioplasty will necessarily repair your heart it just means they can clear the blockage. And you hope it doesn’t come back.
But in terms of that feeling. I’m on the bed and watching this grey image of the stents go in…I had this quiet sustained elation they were saving my life. The guy said “Don’t worry, we’re saving your life.”
And that was very reassuring.
Up Next Week: Part 2 – Understanding Heart Disease.