Throw Out Fifty Things

February is Women's Heart Month and it's time for you to "follow your insticts" and make sure your heart and everything that surronds it, is in good working order. Read this column that I wrote for Real Simple magazine and you'll understand why I'm so anxious for you to take control of your own beautiful life...


Follow Your Instincts — They Could Save Your Life
Real Simple’s life coach, Gail Blanke, had a “bad feeling” in her chest. Doctors said she was fine; she thought otherwise. Two months and a lifesaving double-bypass later, she shares lessons she learned

“You’re a very smart lady,” said a voice only slightly muffled by a surgical mask. “You know that?”

“Really, I am?” I slurred. “Why?”

“Because you followed your instincts,” said the doctor. “Because you paid attention to the voice in your head.”

“Oh,” I said. “Yeah. So what did you find out?”

Sriram S. Iyer, an interventional cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital, in New York City, had just finished an angiogram. And, flattering as his words were, he was not all smiles. “Well, it’s more complicated than we’d hoped,” he said. “You have two major arteries that are 80 percent blocked. We need to do some more tests, and then we’ll talk about bypass surgery.”

I must have looked really shocked and upset. I was shocked and upset. “Bypass?” I said. Bypass surgery was definitely not in any future I could imagine. It just didn’t fit with the image I had of myself. “Don’t worry,” Dr. Iyer said. “There’s good news. Your heart’s in perfect condition. There’s no damage anywhere. You’ve got the heart of a 30-year-old.”

“Yeah, and the arteries of the 2,000-Year-Old Man. Tell me the part again about how smart I am.”
Well, big deal. Really, millions and millions of people have had bypass surgery. In fact, according to the American Heart Association, nearly half a million people have one or more blocked arteries “bypassed” every year in the United States. I mean, look at Bill Clinton, for Pete’s sake. So what’s the big deal?

Here’s the big deal: I’m not the type. I don’t fit the profile for having heart disease at all. I’m physically fit (I work out almost every day); I eat healthfully; I’m a high-energy, optimistic (most days), extremely active person who never smoked. And thanks to the wonders of modern-day, uh, “cosmeceuticals,” I look like the last person in the world you’d tag for having heart disease. The very last. Even if you were in the medical profession.

But that, it turns out, is not good. In fact, had I not in the end ignored the other voices around me and followed my instincts, Dr. Iyer might have had no good news to report. This is what happened: A few weeks before I found myself in Lenox Hill Hospital, I began to be bothered by a sort of dark, pressured, achy feeling in my chest. I referred to it as a “bad feeling.” It would show up in the middle of the night or when I was climbing the subway stairs or when I was sitting at the computer. It would last only about a minute and was always accompanied by really tired arms. Then, a week before I ended up having surgery, I was walking along East 52nd Street toward my office and suddenly felt as if I was about to faint. But it was a hot, steamy July day in New York City, and I said to myself, “Well, I bet everybody feels like fainting about now.” But the bad feeling lasted longer than usual — and there were those tired arms.

Interestingly, for years when I’d had my annual physical, I’d mentioned to various doctors that I had occasional heart palpitations and shortness of breath. Inevitably, one of them would hand me a list of specialists but say, “I wouldn’t worry about it. Women get palpitations. It’s probably hormonal. Your electrocardiograms are perfect, your blood pressure is right on the money, and — look at you — you’re the picture of health!” (My parents had both had bypasses, but they had also smoked their whole lives and still lived to a ripe 87. Anyway, the doctors knew that, too.)

“Yeah, you’re right,” I’d say. And that was always that.

But there I was on 52nd Street with the bad feeling. I barely made it back to my office. At one point, I thought of stopping at a deli and asking them to call an ambulance. But I didn’t, and the bad feeling went away. When I walked into the office, my assistant, Jane, said, “You don’t look so hot,” and handed me a cold bottle of water. I sat quietly at my desk for a few minutes staring out into space. Finally, I called out to Jane. (And this was the turning point, my friends. This was when I went from a cavalier, arrogant, and entitled woman who took her good health for granted to a humble person who actually, for one brief shining moment, decided to listen to what someone, something — her own body? — was trying so hard to tell her.)

“Hey, Jane,” I said. “Where’d we put the name of that cardiologist?” I made an appointment for the next day.

Nino Marino, the cardiologist, did an electrocardiogram, which was, of course, perfect; took my blood pressure, which was perfect; and did a chest X-ray, which was — guess what? — perfect. “This ‘bad feeling’ of yours,” he said, “it comes with tired arms, right? I don’t like the sound of it. I want to do a stress test. Immediately.”
flunked the stress test big time. Dr. Marino called my internist to tell him. He “fell out of his chair,” Dr. Marino reported. “He said, ‘There’s got to be a mistake. It’s probably a false positive. Gail’s as healthy as a horse.’”

Two days later, I went into Lenox Hill Hospital. Two days after that, I had bypass surgery. Two days after that, I went home. Two months later, I’m writing this column and really am as healthy as a horse. Finally.

You know, our busy lives are filled with opportunities to listen to that small voice inside us that whispers insights about our work, our children, our parents, ourselves, and, yes, the occasional bad feeling. But the busyness often blurs the message, and we move on to the next task, sure that when time permits, we’ll circle back and listen. Or maybe it’s just that we don’t want to hear it. I work out at a community center on the weekends, with a woman who exercises constantly. She also smokes constantly and is nervous and intense. When I saw her after my surgery, I asked if she had ever had a stress test. “No,” she said. “I don’t want to know what it says.” I can’t tell you how many people tell me that. “I’d rather not know” is a frequent response to the suggestion of getting a mammogram, a sonogram, a CAT scan, a colonoscopy, a bone-density test, you name it.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that most of the time it takes a crisis for us to make any real changes in our lives or in ourselves? Without a crisis, we just “go along.” We go along with the status quo, the not-so-hot relationships, the not-so-hot job, the not-so-hot way we feel. And we wait for something to happen: for it to get better, for it all to work out, for the bad feelings to go away. Well, my friends, waiting doesn’t walk the dog. We know better. We just have to wake up to the fact that we know better and act on what we know — before the crisis happens, before the bad feeling takes over.

The day after I got home from the hospital, Abigail, our younger daughter, spontaneously put her arms around me and told me she loved me. “Thanks, darling,” I said. “I sure am lucky.”

“I don’t think it was luck, Mom,” she said. “You followed your instincts.”
Here’s what I learned about following my instincts.

1. Be humble.
I was arrogant about my glowing “good” health. The very thought of heart disease was repugnant to me. Heart disease happened to other people — the ones who smoked, ate a lot of fatty foods, and didn’t get off the sofa. You don’t have to be invincible. You do have to be secure enough to be imperfect, to need repairs and adjustments. And to get them.

2. Listen.
When the little voice says, “You know what? This doesn’t add up. I’ve got a bad feeling,” listen and take action. Don’t wait for directions from someone else (no one told me to go to a cardiologist) or for the sound of sirens at your front door. This is your life, my friend, and you’re in charge.

3. Trust the true experts.
When I was in my 20s, a boss gave me a great piece of advice: “You’ll never know everything about everything. But there will always be someone who knows everything about one thing. Go to the experts and ask for help.” I’ve followed that advice in every job I’ve ever had, and it always works. My instincts alerted me to a potential crisis. But it was time to let the doctors take charge. The evening before my operation, Valavanur Subramanian, the renowned surgeon who performed the bypass, took my hand and said, “I won’t kid you, Gail. You’ve got a few things that need to be repaired. But I can fix them, and I will fix them.” “I’m all yours,” I said. And at that moment I made his job about 1,000 percent easier.

4. Tap into your spiritual side.
If you do have a defining moment in your health or in your life, it is always good to tap into your spiritual side to help you get through it. When I was lying on the gurney, waiting to be wheeled into the operating room, I said every prayer I had ever learned, as I usually do when my back is up against the proverbial wall. I also did some serious meditating. I envisioned myself opening a huge golden door and stepping across the threshold into a field of infinite abundance and boundless energy. When I saw Dr. Subramanian, I smiled.

5. Get a stress test.
I’m not kidding.


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