Ailing a bit, but determined not to miss a beat

A knee replacement and a new pacemaker don’t mean the columnist has stopped wanting to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

Steve Lopez holds a knee replacement model during his pre-surgery appointment at the Keck-USC Hospital Medical Center in August. (Katie Falkenberg / For The Times)

By Steve Lopez
September 9, 2012

Being stuck at home while recuperating from surgery is an uncommonly cruel fate. I like to go places and do things, but instead I am locked down, my left leg and brand new knee strapped into an electric flexing machine six hours a day, bending, straightening, bending, straightening.

Please, oh please, if there is a God — as people keep insisting — let there be a rolling blackout.

My one dispensation from this cruel monotony was a Labor Day outing to The Taste, an L.A. Times food festival where I was master of ceremonies and co-judge for the Firefighter Cook-off. It felt good to be out of the house, and to watch as Capt. Mark Curry’s pot stickers edged out firefighter Cruz Macias’ mole enchiladas, giving Curry, who hails from Station 29, bragging rights for a year.

But as the show drew to a close, I felt a weird sensation in my chest, almost as though I had had spark plugs that were misfiring. It was a little scary, because less than two weeks before, my heart had stopped after knee surgery, revealing the severity of a preexisting condition and causing me to leave the hospital with a pacemaker.

On stage, I plopped back onto my stool in the sun-blasted tent and took a deep breath. I had earlier joked that it was comforting to know that if I happened to keel over, the Fire Department was present. But what if I went down like a redwood and they couldn’t revive me?

“Columnist dies while judging cooking competition,” the headline would have read; “Times food critic Jonathan Gold fails in resuscitation attempt, then eats last pot sticker.”

The flutter in my chest calmed down quickly enough, but I felt winded and went home to rest. The next day, during my first follow-up visit with the cardiologist, I learned that my new pacemaker records any irregular rhythms and the doctor, amazingly, can look back and see what my heart’s been up to.

Hmmm. Would my Labor Day palpitation show up on the grid being spit out by a computer?

The doctor examined the data and, sure enough, she noted an irregular beat on Sept. 3. That would be Labor Day. And it happened at 12:45 p.m.

Exactly the time of my onstage flutter.

So what happened? Well, said the cardiologist, my heart rate, normally between 60 and 100 beats per minute, had briefly raced to twice that. The pacemaker only helps with a slow heart rate, so now we have to consider the possibility of a different treatment for a fast heart rate.

A monitoring patch the size of a shoe horn was glued to my chest to record additional activity, and I went home thinking there were two things worse than getting old: Not getting old, and getting old too soon. I’m glad I still have the possibility of getting old, but I’m in no hurry, especially after hearing all this campaign banter about Medicare “reform,” which promises to make actual old age even crueler by the time I get there.

A doctor friend recently congratulated me on having a new birthday. He was referring to the day I was resuscitated after full cardiac arrest, but it’s hard to feel like celebrating when you’re wearing two heart devices, your knee is on ice, the wretched flexion machine is whirring, and you’re wearing a pair of thigh-length white stockings to prevent blood clots.

Having to replace a worn-out knee at the age of 58, with the other knee due for replacement in November, was bad enough. But I never expected, just six months after watching my Dad die of congestive heart failure — and after a year of writing about end-of-life issues — that I’d have my own ticker problems to worry about so soon.

Suddenly you find yourself thinking about the time you have left and how to spend it, provided you have any real say in the matter. Is life even worth living, for a middle-aged man, if white stockings are part of the deal?

Should I minister to the poor, or blow out the bank account traveling the world with my lovely wife and family? Should I live a healthier lifestyle, or make it my mission to consume joyous amounts of chips and salsa? Should I keep chipping away at the 30-year mortgage, or move to a beach shack on a remote island and slurp tropical cocktails for lunch?

Self-indulgent sloth holds tremendous appeal. The only problem is it doesn’t pay very well, unless you’re a member of the state Legislature.

My brother suggested I write a book in which I claim that during my half a minute on the other side, I had a cup of coffee with God. That, he insisted, would be a can’t-miss bestseller.

I don’t recall having seen God — or even Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, for that matter. I always thought he’d be standing by when I flat-lined, triumphant that I was finally going to pay for all the times I went after him in print.

I’m sure he’ll be disappointed to learn that my brush with death hasn’t made me more tolerant. Actually, I feel even less inclined to accept nonsense, ineptitude, pomposity and hypocrisy. So maybe that’s all the more reason to hold off on retiring to island living and get back to work.

Sure, I’ve got a pacemaker, and an artificial knee with another one on order.

But I didn’t defy death just to sit around feeling sorry for myself, folks. I’m already feeling better and intend to get back in the game, bionically recalibrated, just as soon as I get out of these ridiculous stockings.
Copyright © 2012, Los Angeles Times

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