Back when I was relatively new to this business, when I had just signed on with Time magazine, one of the big deals was that Time had just hired — as the editor of its medicine section — an actual medical doctor, or at least a guy who had attended medical school. The thinking was, apparently, that medicine was getting so steeped in science that you needed an actual doctor to make sense of it.
And at that time a big league publication was paying high enough salaries that it could lure a would-be MD away from the white coat.
I remember sitting around with the guy, and him observing that there was a story in how milk — milk! — was one of the worst things we could consume. Americans, especially, were about the only living creatures around who continued to drink milk long after their natural nursing time was over. Credit “big agri” for that one.
Fast forward 20 years or so, and U.S. 1 decided to schedule an annual health and fitness issue. By that time not too many people in journalism were making anything close to what a doctor made. When it came time to find a writer, I probably turned not to a medical writer but to a dance critic. That would have been Barbara Fox, who will tell you that if you can write about dance (and I would add especially modern dance), you can write about anything.
The truth is that most medical stories turn out to be human stories, above all, and you need a person with a good ear and a good eye to make them come to life. As for the exact science, it’s always changing anyhow. So how much should you make of it at any one moment?
Years ago I was horsing around in bed with my then three-year-old son. He jumped up and landed squarely in my groin. With a painful bruise in that sensitive area, I visited a doctor — for the first time in years. He recommended a complete physical, including blood tests. I stumbled across the written report a few days ago.
“All tests look great,” the MD wrote. Blood pressure was 128/72. I weighed in at 170 pounds, not even close to obese for a guy who is 5-feet-11. Total cholesterol was 184, with LDL (the “bad” part) at 108, and HDL (the “good” stuff) at 46. Triglycerides were 147. And I got an extra attaboy at the time of the visit for not smoking.
Six years later, still basking in the glow of that report, I was walking around town with a 90 percent blocked left anterior descending artery — the LAD, or widowmaker, as it is known. I didn’t have a pain in the world, but another doctor during another physical on September 10, 2001, grew suspicious. He ordered a nuclear stress test — the gold standard — which didn’t tell him much but at least revealed “a shadow of a doubt.”
There was a story there, as much about my own awareness (or lack thereof) as it was about the medical knowledge that led to my rescue. That ran in June of 2002 — a health and fitness issue.
This year’s health and fitness story has a similar ring to it. But in Marylou Kelly Streznewski’s case, the story led to a full-length book, “Heart Rending/Heart Mending,” from which the cover story for this issue has been excerpted. Streznewski’s book details the science, but it also speaks to the subjective:
“On the one side is the prevention and detection of heart disease, especially in women, which should be saving more lives than it is currently. The miracles cannot be performed if women are sent home instead of to the hospital. On the other side is the slow progress of opening medical minds to the full panoply of healing methods, some thousands of years old, which could be saving more lives than they are currently doing.”
But even Streznewski’s 186 pages devoted to both medical science, ancient healing methods, and integrative approaches that bring it all together do not account for everything that can factor into a compelling medical story. There is also luck, karma, God (or god), or just the random car coming down the highway, momentarily out of control, with a human being in its crosshairs.
One heath and fitness story that I didn’t appreciate much at the time came in 2010, when arts editor Jamie Saxon wrote a series of profiles on how pets can influence the outcome of medical challenges. There was no FDA study to support this, but there was a small sample of anecdotal evidence to support the idea that a warm and fuzzy dog or a softly purring cat could help patients pull themselves together emotionally and also physically.
One of Saxon’s case studies was a young woman named Kourtney Crivello, who at the time of the article was battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which had been diagnosed just before her wedding to husband, Scott. On temporary disability, Crivello told U.S. 1 that her “saving grace” was their dog, Buddy, a 65-pound lab-husky mix, and Amber, their tabby cat.
“Being diagnosed was one of the scariest things and extremely stressful. There were times when Scott and I would be so stressed out, and Buddy would sense that. If I cry or the tone of my voice changes he comes right to me and puts his paws on my lap and stares right into my eyes. Just him coming to me is the sweetest thing. He really makes your heart stop beating so fast. He comforts and calms me. The benefits of having Buddy and Amber are immeasurable. I call my husband my best friend and caregiver. I call Buddy my other best friend and caregiver.”
Crivello noted that the dog was an asset to her husband as well. “Scott is so amazing. It’s hard to be a caregiver; he has to watch me suffer and cry. He’s got the stress of work, several doctors appointments a week (with me). If we have a bad day or appointment, instantaneously when we walk into the house, Buddy is right there greeting us. Whatever’s going on in the outside world, he’s so happy to see us. It de-stresses you the second you walk in.”
Her cat also helped, Crivello said. “Cats have an amazing way of calming you down with their purring. You start to relax.”
I was a little skeptical reading all of this — I sure wasn’t ready to trade in my cardiologist for a corgi. But I changed my feeling — a little — a few years later when I spent 10 or 11 days in the Princeton Medical Center, waiting for a broken pelvis to heal. One day a volunteer dropped into the room accompanied by an exceedingly well behaved (no barking) and friendly (as in eager to be petted) dog. I was happy to see the dog, but I suggested to the handler that there was a lady down the hall who might appreciate this comfort creature more than I.
I guessed that the woman had been in an accident of some sort. She looked battered physically, and at the daily physical therapy sessions she never smiled. The day after the visit from the dog, the woman seemed to me to be a different patient. Without mentioning the dog, I asked the physical therapists if they noticed any difference in woman. They had — it was like night and day.
A few months ago Kourtney Crivello’s name came up in an online news alert. She apparently successfully navigated all the shoals of cancer treatment and has done fine in the battle recounted in U.S. 1 in 2010. She even has a baby girl, Bella. But she no longer has one of her best friends and caregivers. Scott Crivello died February 21 of this year at the age of 34, of injuries suffered in a random car accident on his way home from work on February 11.
You don’t need a medical degree to offer this advice: Live well and travel safely.