My father’s first heart attack when he was 49, on Thanksgiving Day 1968, marked one of those before and after divisions in a family’s life.
The orange-and-white ambulance in our driveway heralded Dad’s long hospitalization and Mom’s palpable fear—her lecture about having to prepare him a special diet was itself a scary rift to me at age 12—and then his Schwinn for exercise that replaced our family boat. A new nomenclature, too: angina, myocardial infarction, dietary cholesterol, building collateral blood vessels, congestive heart disease. Dad suffered another heart attack in 1979, as a hurricane hit our county in Florida. In 1984, up in Illinois, my half-brother, age 44, sustained his own infarction. In 1989, Dad, his scarred heart barely beating, succumbed at age 71.
No help from Mom’s genetics. She got bypass surgery for four blocked arteries in 1993. “The Rounsaville blood,” she told me, “is like sludge.”
With my family’s doom-laden cardiovascular history, reading Thomas Larson’s new book was a visceral experience. As a good memoir will, The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease makes real one person’s inner and outer experience—gives you that experience. It both inspired me as a writer and animated my natural desire to escape, for as long as possible, the saving but cold ministry of the medical establishment.