Back ] Home ] Up ] Next ]

Treating a Heart Attack in the 1930s

In the winter of 1934, when I was eleven, one bitterly cold Sunday afternoon Dad gave in to my entreaty and we went out to buy a few goldfish and a bowl. The hill from our apartment building was a twenty-degree incline and quite a long way from Riverside Drive to Broadway. I didn’t notice that he was having trouble making it up the hill, stopping every few minutes to catch his breath. We walked the quarter mile or so along Broadway to the pet shop, got my fish and all the supplies, and went home. Dad said he wasn’t feeling too well, just tired maybe, and he laid down for a nap. Next morning he was fit as a fiddle, or so we thought.

That afternoon when I got in from school, our maid Henrietta told me they’d brought him home on a stretcher and that Dr. Friedman was with him. Mom arrived home just as Dr. Friedman came out of their bedroom. He told my mother that Dad had had a mild heart attack, nothing serious (boy, what they didn’t know about heart attacks in 1934!) and if he felt well enough, he could go to work the next day.

The following day, home he came on a stretcher. He’d had another heart attack and this time it was enough to scare the hell out of even Dr. Friedman. Dad was moved by stretcher to the guest room, where the shades were drawn, and he was told not to move a muscle for six weeks. Just lie there. No radio, no newspapers, shades drawn, and I was allowed in the room once a day to say hello. If I was playing in the apartment, I was taught to be very quiet.

I have never met anyone in my life with the sheer willpower of my father. He lay there for the prescribed period of time, a complete bedpan case. I was too young to know if he was getting any medication, only that Dr. Friedman came every day to check him. Sometimes he came with other men, whom I later found out were specialists. Treatment for heart attacks back then was simple. You either died or got better. Bed rest was the best solution for the time.

When Dad was able to get up, he was allowed to walk slowly around the apartment for fifteen minutes at a time. He was weak as a kitten. As soon as he could go out, he went to Dr. Friedman’s office, where he had a final examination and then they went into the doctor’s office for a chat.

"You smoke, don’t you?" Dr. Friedman asked.

"Since I was a kid."

"We don’t know too much about heart conditions at this stage, Harry, but we’re learning. I’m sending you to the best specialist I can find, Dr. Masters. You haven’t been reading anything lately, so you wouldn’t know that his picture was on the cover of Time magazine. He’s invented a new test called the two-step. It’s a two-step staircase that you climb up and down while he monitors your heart."

My father nodded.

"I can only say," Friedman continued, "that you’re lucky to be alive." Little did he know.

"Will I be able to go back to work and have something of a normal life?"

"I think so. Oh, and by the way, you’ve had your last cigarette."

My father stood up and took the cardboard box of beloved Helmar Turkish cigarettes from his jacket pocket, put it on Friedman’s desk, and started to leave. Then he turned back, "No, that’s not the way to do it," he said. He picked up the packet and put it back in his pocket. He carried it with him for two years and never opened it. When he was sure he wasn’t going to smoke again, he tossed it out.

Dr. Masters was a wonder. Dad went on a whole bunch of medications to thin his blood, got nitroglycerin to place under the tongue to stop the pain of an angina attack, and started taking vitamins.

Up until then, vitamins were rather strange things given to children along with a teaspoon of cod liver oil daily. The vitamins I didn’t mind; I think I could have been a sword swallower because I was able to gulp them down without water, but the cod liver oil…yech! With my mother, however, there were no ands or buts, it was just, "Open your mouth."

I didn’t realize until recently how well she took care of me during my growing years. I’d been born with flat feet. Absolutely no arches at all! Until I was well into my teens I wore Coward’s corrective shoes, and later on Dr. Scholl arch supports. During the Depression, before Texaco and millions of firemen hats, my shoes cost four times what other kids’ shoes cost. My folks came up with the money somehow. I was raised like the prince, not the pauper.

The one important thing I never learned was the value of money and how to manage it. I’ve been without it and never felt poor. I’ve had lots of it and never felt rich. Money has always been something to spend, loan, or sometimes give away. I’ve always hated borrowing, unless from a bank. If I have to borrow from a friend, I carry that debt on my shoulders as if I can feel its weight until I repay it. That emanates from a sense of responsibility I got from observing my parent’s behavior and ethics. It was never anything we discussed at home, it was just the way I grew up. You got a bill, you paid it. You owed a debt, you paid it. You owed someone a favor for a kindness done, you found a way to return that gift with graciousness. You didn’t kick the other guy around or pick on somebody smaller than yourself, and you didn’t hang out with kids who did.

Back ] Home ] Up ] Next ]