The human heart is an amazing muscle. At its best, the fab four--the mitral valve, aortic valve, pulmonic valve and tricuspid valve--work in perfect rhythm as the sinoatrial node conducts a cardiac concerto in our chests. At its worst, the ensemble is a bit sloppy or does not play at all. In the past months, two powerful men of different wavelengths on the political spectrum and a football coach praised for his 'superhuman drive' have had their cardiac bands perform at their worst. These three cases provide more than just insight for cardiologists; they provide insight into American culture. Allow me to explain.
On Monday, February 22, Dick Cheney was hospitalized for chest pains. The following day he suffered a minor heart attack, his fifth to date. Once a heavy smoker, Cheney has had cardiac issues since he was 37 years of age, including quadruple-bypass surgery. This latest episode prompted the Health section of the Los Angeles Times to examine the nature of Cheney's heart attacks and answer the question of how many one human can have, before, presumably, dying. While it is alarming that Cheney has had five heart attacks, it is far more alarming that the Health section of the LA Times approached the issue as if having upwards of five heart attacks may be something that some people will have to tolerate given their lifestyle. In professions known for their relentlessly high volume of work and stress level, it seems not only that we have to endure, but also that doctors are advancing medicine to the point at which we can endure. This attitude is one of brute-force: we can overcome the weaknesses of our bodies and continue working until the band plays poorly once again. But there is another attitude, and it rests on our other two cases.
On Friday, February 12, Bill Clinton underwent a heart procedure to fix a blocked artery after experiencing chest pains for several days. In 2004, he too had quadruple-bypass surgery. Clinton has been working on the Haiti relief effort, and was routinely flying from New York to Port-au-Prince, once logging three overnight flights in a week. Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell said, "he's got to slow down to a good, human schedule. He's had a superhuman [there's that word again] schedule for a long while, and he's got to cut back. There's no question about it." Similarly, at 4:30 a.m. on December 6, 2009, after his team lost to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, Florida Gators head coach Urban Meyer was rushed to the hospital after experiencing chest pains and a tingling sensation in his side. Meyer has had chest pains before due to anxiety, and announced his resignation as head coach of Florida even before the team was set to play Cincinnati in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. He has since tempered his decision to an 'indefinite leave of absence' and, then, to resume coaching duties immediately, while 'slowing down his pace'. Thus, this attitude is one of moderation: we can continue to work hard in what we do, but we must be in tune with what our bodies are telling us.
These three cases, while extreme examples, still beg the question: can Americans find a balance between brute-force and moderation that allows us to work at the highest level without entirely sacrificing our health for it? In other words, can we actually slow down our pace?
The answer, unfortunately, is no. A relentless work ethic is deeply ingrained in American culture. There is this feeling in the States of a hurried frenzy against the clock at all times. For me, coming back from being abroad in Auckland, New Zealand, the distinction was obvious. Several Colby students who spent their fall in Madrid, where they have siesta every afternoon, felt the same way.
In the States, there are television advertisements for 5-Hour Energy that promote the drink's ability to help people push through the last three hours of a workday, in typical brute-force fashion. My guess is that 5-Hour Energy does not advertise in Spain, let alone New Zealand. What about our cases of moderation from before? Clinton went back to work with equal frenzy (though admirably for the Haiti relief effort), quickly debunking the idea that he will be slowing down. On January 24, Meyer said, "People I'm closest to are going to demand that I take some time off, but I tried that already. I tried a day and a half, and it didn't work." A day and a half. It seems Americans are bound to do everything at mach-speed.
As for Colby students, we may be careening toward some terrible band performances in the future. The Colby website boasts that "graduates...find their places at the best medical schools and research universities, the finest law and business programs, top financial firms, in the arts, government service, social service, education, and nonprofit organizations and they are inspired leaders in their communities." But at what cost?