Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Heartbreak Hill, Part 1

It’s called the Hollywood Sign, and it sits atop Mount Lee. For as long as I live, though, Mt. Lee shall be known as Heartbreak Hill, the place where fate and the control my own destiny merged.

In my last blog, I waxed poetic over the result of my blood test, because I thought it showed no problem with my heart. Unfortunately, I misread the results of that test. If I’d realized that I had in fact suffered a little damage to my heart, I wouldn’t have stayed in bed this past Sunday, and I probably wouldn’t have chosen to anarchically ride to the top of the Hollywood Sign and the summit of Mount Lee, either.

With perhaps 20 other cyclists on what is an annual Los Angeles Wheelmen ride, we began the ten mile trek up to the iconic Hollywood Sign, which sits just below the summit of Mt. Lee, in the Santa Monica Mountains. Most of the climb would occur the last few miles, beginning just after we’d cross Franklin Avenue in Hollywood. I’d made the ride a year earlier, when I’d had no concern of heart problems. I remember, though, that the ride to the top of the mountain was more difficult than I thought it should be. Even then, the arteries in my heart were closing down.

On this Sunday's ride, I heard someone about my age discuss his own incipient cardiac problems; we spoke for a while on the easy pedal through the Miracle Mile district and into Hollywood. My companion told me he had a vial of nitroglycerine tablets with him. I had long ago stopped carrying my own bottle of nitro, on the theory that I seemed immune to chest pain - known as angina - which is a possible precursor to a heart attack.

With a stent in my right coronary artery, and no chest pain in seven months, and with my excellent diet and plenty of exercise, I was obviously not going to have another heart attack. I put my faith in that belief, despite evidence to the contrary, like the recent serious chest pain I’d experienced in Yosemite National Park (which I blamed on the altitude and the lack of an adequate warm-up). I had faith despite my cardiologist’s concern about that pain; he’d warned me to take it easy until I’d had the stress test he scheduled for me late this month. I had faith even though I knew I still had some significant blockage in my left artery after my heart attack in December.

Secure in the belief I was immortal, I crossed Fountain Avenue and looked up at the climb. As gradual as was the beginning of that ascent, so too did I gradually become aware that my chest pain was returning. This time, though, I couldn't claim I didn't warm-up enough, or that I was at altitude.

Four of us had been riding together at the front of the group. I let the other three get a little ahead of me, thinking that I’d feel better if I slowed down. It didn’t help. I tried controlling my breathing, steadying it; that had no effect. Catching up with the riders in front of me didn’t help, either.

Now, at 730 feet above sea level, we turned onto brutally steep Ledgewood Drive, and began to climb in earnest. Next we turned right onto lung-busting, serpentining Dorando Ave. There were just two of us now. We stopped at the arched walkway that would take us onto Mt. Lee Drive, a rough-paved service road leading to the enclosure of television and communication towers atop the mountain.

I know, I know, I should have been prudent, should have stopped riding or at least turned around and headed for the hospital when I felt that pain. I should have heeded the advice of my cardiologist. But angina, while a potential precursor of a heart attack, isn’t a heart attack. And I wasn't having a heart attack.

Often, we humans are controlled by external forces. Some of these forces are natural: typhoons, hurricanes, forest fires. Other forces that shape our lives are created by our fellow humans: wars, riots, car crashes, Ponzi schemes, derivitives, coups and stolen elections. We tend to follow the rules others lay down for us, too. We follow the rules of our parents and teachers, religious leaders, legislators, judges, traffic cops, and doctors. When we don't follow the rules, we run the risk of creating anarchy.

For now, angina was a stop sign, an unwelcome road block on my assault of Mt. Lee. For now, my doctor's advice was another way for someone else to control me, even as I burned to be free. I wanted my conscious self, and not my aging body, to control my own destiny.

I waited for the fellow with the nitro to pedal up to me, and when he did, I asked him for a tab. I hoped it would have no effect on my chest pain. If it did, then I could only conclude I was suffering an angina attack.

A couple of minutes after swallowing the pill, I pushed off again for the summit, leaving the other riders behind. No pain! Thus the truth was revealed to me: my heart had betrayed me. (Note: no, that's not me, below; he wasn't quite that exhausted and was a good sport posing for my camera.)

With the nitro working its magic, letting blood flow into my heart, I knew I would be unburdened from my chest pain for a few minutes. As I rode hard for the top of Mt Lee, it was as if I were channeling the spirit of Lance Armstrong. Mount Lee was Mount Ventoux, Mount Everest, and the Martian Mons Olympus. It was a pure hammerfest. I arrived on the summit gasping for breath, but without pain, and I was rewarded for my efforts with a fantastic view of Los Angeles on both sides of Mt. Lee, as well as the diagnosis of my own heart disease.

Everyone else arrived at the top, and after we all admired the view, we headed down to the flatlands. My exertions over, I felt no more pain. When I reached home, I showered, and drove myself to the hospital.

Tech Notes: Panasonic Lumix TZ5.

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