Three years ago, while at dinner with my wife, a steak saved my life. It was an especially good steak, so I over ate—stuffing my face as much as possible instead of taking some home. Later that evening, I felt a discomfort in my chest. It was annoying, but not enough to keep me from playing basketball two days later. The soreness—a dull, thudding, tightness; it felt how backs feel when they need to be cracked—worsened while hooping, and afterwards I drove myself to the ER at UPMC Shadyside.
After a battery of tests, CT scans, and blood work, it was revealed that I just had an intense bout of acid reflux and a slightly strained pectoral muscle. “Everything looks fine” the cherubic and Patagonia-clad ER doc said, “but there’s just one more scan we need to do to rule something out.”
“Something?” I asked.
“It’s nothing, don’t worry. You’ll be home in an hour.”
One more scan became two, and then, two hours later, the one doctor in my room became three. The doctor who appeared to be the oldest approached my bed with his hands behind his back. He smelled like soup. “It appears as if you have an aortic aneurysm,” he said. Then he followed with something scarier: “And … we don’t know how it happened”
I’ll spare you the smog of anxiety and fear that overcame me when hearing that. You just need to know that I was admitted while they attempted to “solve” me, and I was discharged three days later because my vitals were fine and the chest pain (which had gone away) was unrelated to the aneurysm. In the following month, I visited a cardiologist, a gastrologist, and my primary care provider; none of whom had any answers. Then I saw a rheumatologist, who noticed something off with my pulse—it was strong on my right side, but weaker on my left. After two more tests, he concluded that I likely had Takayasu’s Arteritis, which rheumtaology.org describes as “… a rare form of vasculitis involving inflammation in the walls of the largest arteries in the body.” It is also considered an autoimmune disease. This is what caused the aneurysm, which, as the doctors discovered after looking through my old medical records, had actually been present for at least 10 years. A landmine that would’ve continued to lurk if I hadn’t been greedy.
So far it’s been manageable. Surgery doesn’t appear to be necessary, I take Lisinopril to keep my blood pressure even lower than it naturally is, and I drive to Ohio once a year to visit a specialist at the Cleveland Clinic. I’ve also been advised to not lift anything over 250 pounds—which doesn’t impact my day-to-day but does provide a built-in excuse when friends need help moving. But I feel fine. So fine that I still try to hoop three to five times a week when I’m home, which the specialist encourages me to do as long as I can.
At the LA Fitness I frequent, I mostly play with men in their 20s and early 30s, and I’ve grown to appreciate—and hunt for—the backhanded compliments that come when they discover I’m 41. “Oh wow. I hope to still be out here when I get up there too.” “Bruh, you must’ve been nice back in your day.” “Fam, you look great for your age.” Maybe because the 20-and 30-year-old me had ideas of what 40 would look, feel, and act like, and I don’t believe myself to be any of those things. I have all of my hair (with two scantily visible grays in my beard). The cut of the jeans I rock are “slim and tapered” instead of “A Dad At Home Depot.” And my preternaturally unimpressed 19-year-old nephew asks me for music and sneaker recommendations.
This ecosystem of youth-identifying fictions I lean on is so thick, so essential to how I see myself and wish to be seen, that weeks ago, when the first Americans tested positive for the coronavirus, and we reflexively split ourselves into an “immunocompromised” or “healthy” binary, I chose the latter. “I have a 73-year-old dad and a cancer-surviving mother-in-law,” I thought to myself, stupidly. “I must be vigilant and cautious for them.” For them.
The ubiquity of this sort of self-delusion has been the most notable subplot of the collective American response to this pandemic. We’re inundated with evidence—empirical, anecdotal, and scientific—of the danger of this virus and the peril of insolence, yet many of us remain committed to thumbing our noses at an adversary oblivious to disrespect. It’s like giving the finger to a chair. Granted, while COVID-19 is politically agnostic, the acknowledgement of, and reaction to it, is not. It wasn’t until a press conference on the afternoon of March 16th that President Trump appeared even slightly cognizant of how dire the next several weeks would be. Many of his supporters have taken his lead, as they’ve considered the reaction to the virus to be an overblown progressive hysteric intended to hurt him.
Still, after extracting politics from it, my self-deception remains. Sometimes, it’s vital—on the hoop court, for instance, where if competing with 25-year-olds—it’s necessary to convince myself I’m younger and healthier than I actually am. Plus, Takayasu’s Arteritis sounds more like a finishing move from John Wick than a medical condition, and explaining it just makes me sound like I’m really into MMA.
But mostly now I have to remind myself to stop repressing the reality of my condition. I am not unhealthy, but I have no idea how my already stressed immune system would handle something it’s never seen. Against this virus, the delusion I lug to LA Fitness morphs from a shield to a saboteur. And when I watched the footage of people at beaches and bars and clubs and restaurants on St. Patrick’s Day and during Spring Break—packed to the brim; business as usual—I wondered how many of them had also done the math I did when first learning about the coronavirus, and reflexively miscalculated too.
How many have asthmas yet-to-be diagnosed or allergies yet-to-be discovered? How many have had a recent endoscopy or colonoscopy, and know exactly what’s lurking in their bowels? How many rely on WedMD to treat chronic alignments instead of a PCP? How many have undetected and unaddressed aneurysms, which often remain painless until they rupture, and then excruciating until you die? And when learning last week that men seem to be more likely to experience severe coronavirus symptoms than women, how much of this distinction is due to the fact that men are less likely to regularly visit the doctor, which makes us more likely to have the sort of underlying health conditions that make COVID-19 more dangerous? And how many of us are too economically insecure to see a doctor regularly? Or don’t have health care—which I was privileged to possess three years ago (and still have now)—so we conjure clean bills of health for ourselves out of financial necessity?
The danger of this sort of math is the variable. Most of us just don’t know exactly how healthy we are, and none of us—neither the “healthy” nor the immunocompromised—know how our immune systems will react to a virus it’s never seen. And me? Well, I just need to remind myself I was lucky to order the steak.
Damon Young is the author of ‘What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker’ (Ecco/HarperCollins)
Source : Damon Young Link