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 for a discussion on the memoir, heart disease and embracing mortality. In part 2 of the four-part series, Larson discusses what this journey has taught him about heart disease.
Editor’s Note: Below is an edited transcript.
Excelsior Life: I think what I found scary when reading your memoir was the fact that heart attacks can occur without actual symptoms. And often when symptoms are present, people don’t attribute them to a heart ailment.
Larson: A heart attack, just to be clear, occurs when blood doesn’t reach the heart muscle and that muscle begins to die.
Now, you can sustain yourself through an attack. Some people have rested their way through it, chewing a baby aspirin, or taking a hit of nitroglycerin. These are the classic ways – before angioplasty – that people were able to hold (an attack) off for a time. If you could get to a hospital you could get an injection of a drug that could bust up a blockage.
But remember, you might be on an airplane, or a boat, or driving across Arizona or Kansas, or the Sudan, and there is no help available. That’s when you have real problems.
You may remember Tim Russert, the NBC newsman. In 2008, he had cardiac arrest. Basically, he died in four minutes. Now, he had problems, including diabetes, a poor diet, and abdominal obesity. And yet, he was under a doctor’s care. Why didn’t he know better? Why didn’t his doctors predict (the attack)? That was a big story.
But Tim really was asymptomatic, just like actor James Gandolfini. Two guys lost in their early to mid-50s to heart disease.
Excelsior Life: In modern society, there are so many stressors we don’t even think about. At one point in the memoir, your practitioner asks about your stress levels to which you respond, “I’m a writer, how stressed can I be?” She counters with “Do you drive on the highway, that’s a stressor right there.”
Larson: It’s not so much the world out there, whether it’s shopping or cars or waiting in lines or being stuck on hold. This stress is part and parcel of contemporary life. But what people could do to lower their stress without changing their life is simply exercising every day. Just walking for thirty minutes relieves an incredible amount of stress and de-inflames the arteries. And the other way (to relieve stress on the heart) is to avoid all animal protein. It sounds so simple but people are still shocked when I say it.
Believe me, Mike, what went in my mouth made me sick. Becoming a vegan has saved my life.
It’s not just the fat. It’s the kind of (animal) protein, especially in dairy, that human beings have a hard time post-infancy digesting.
Why is that when you eat five slices of pizza, you say I’m never going to eat pizza again? The reason you feel so bad when you are so full is because your body is trying to digest this cheese invader, which is way more than it can handle. We all know this yet we continue to overstress the body trying to digest it.
Carrying so much extra weight creates not only incredible strain on the heart muscle itself but inflames the arteries and their cellular lining, making them more susceptible to catching and retaining plaque.
Up Next: Part 3 – Heart Disease, Genetic Legacy or Lifestyle?