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 three of this series, he discusses the root causes of his battle with heart disease, including genetics and his own dietary choices.
Editor’s Note: Below is an edited transcript.
Excelsior Life: This memoir details your journey from your first (of three) heart attacks to where you are today. It is dedicated to several people, including your father, who died of heart disease, your brother, who died of heart disease, and your younger brother, who lost 75 lbs out of fear of experiencing the same fate. Can you talk about what this memoir means to them and their legacy?
Larson: Yeah, that’s a great question. Obviously with my father dying at 61, and my older brother at 42, they had very bad genetic heart disease.
Now, when it comes to cardiovascular illness, a good deal of the American population inherits the condition. Others develop it due to their diet. But it also has to do with the luck of the draw in terms of how our arteries are formed and how well they are able to sustain the amount of plaque and damage that we do to them from our diet and lack of exertion.
I came from an obese family. My dad and my older brother were really big men. I don’t think I was ever quite obese, but I got up to 220, which is a good 40 lbs overweight. My younger brother reached 250 lbs and after my heart ailment – both because he wanted to and as a preventative measure – he lost a good 75 lbs and is now healthier than ever. As am I.
Excelsior Life: One thing I wanted to talk to you about was the title of the memoir, The Sanctuary of Illness. One of the key components of the memoir is that this is a disease that doesn’t just impact you but also impacts your partner, Suzanna.
Larson: Yes, it does. The sanctuary, which is its title, is a really interesting idea that I hint at and develop bit by bit and finally explain in the second to last chapter.
The sanctuary is an idea, a place of safety. This is what happens when you have an illness. You go to the hospital and you are saved. You know a week after my heart attack I felt great. I’ve had angioplasty and the blood is rushing through my arteries in ways it hasn’t in years. I’m also on five other kinds of drugs that reduce the bad cholesterol.
But here’s the thing. It’s a paradox. There are treatments that take the symptoms away, but it’s still there. The idea of the sanctuary is that you feel protected but you really aren’t. That protection is masking the disease itself. I can feel fine, which I do most of the day, but I always have to remember – this is why eat right and I exercise – that I am a heart attack away from dying.
Now, you asked about Suzanna. I really started to feel better once I let her and her caretaking become part of my protocols for trying to end my disease. I had to make the sanctuary bigger to accommodate her worry and her concern. I didn’t want to be concerned with myself. She has it for me because she saw me go through this.
She comes into this sanctuary and it’s a place where she and I can bear this catastrophic change in my life, and a major dramatic change to both of our lives. A relationship helps construct the walls of your sanctuary.
Next Up: Part 4 – Lessons Learned on Heart Disease.