Mysteries of the Heart

Learning From Heart Disease

Cuddling with Mamie

What very few know about Dwight Eisenhower's 1955 heart attack

To introduce myself for this, my first blog at Psychology Today, I’m the author of The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease, Hudson Whitman Press, 2014. The book rewinds and unravels my life during and after my three heart attacks.

The core argument of the memoir is a relational one: My recovery, as good as it can get after the damage of three myocardial infarctions, surged once I shared my condition with my long-time partner, Suzanna. In addition, I cut out dairy, ramped up my exercise, and added supplements. A no-oil Vegan and daily walker, I have lost 35 pounds as a plant-based eater, and it’s been three years since my last angioplasty.

Forgoing self-help advice and Vegan recipes, I’m going to write short essays that combine journalism and criticism. I want to explore some of the ongoing mysteries of the heart: among them, how our hearts and their arteries developed as they did and why women avoid the early onset of heart disease while men do not.

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I’ll begin with this mystery: How was it that, before bypasses and stents, statin drugs and angioplasty, some heart patients survived longer than others when the only treatment was bed rest?

In September 1955, several months before he had to decide on a second term, President Dwight Eisenhower had a midnight heart attack (his wife Mamie drove him to a hospital). He was put on the blood thinner, Coumadin, and told to maintain his weight at 175 with a low-fat diet. The day of his infarct, he ate sausage, bacon, mush, hotcakes for breakfast; hamburger with raw onion for lunch; and roast lamb for dinner. Afterwards, he blamed his angina on the onion.

Heart patients of the time were routinely instructed to stay in bed for six months. As President, however, he couldn’t stay in bed. The country needed him. His doctor had a novel solution—activate his recovery with movement sooner than was traditionally prescribed. In four weeks, Ike was back at work; in seven weeks, he was climbing stairs; and in four months, he announced his candidacy. He won, of course. And, after he left office in 1961, he lived another eight years.

But the real surprise in his treatment wasn’t just enforced activity; it was also to activate his primary relationship. His doctor ordered the former general to cuddle with Mamie. Don’t work in the evenings and spend time snuggling with her on the couch or in bed. The point was to calm him and lower his inflammation. The key to recovery was already there in his marriage. In a sense, that’s what marriage is for. Apparently, Ike took the cue and cuddled.

There’s a paradox here, especially for us: We believe the more medical intervention we have, the more quality of life ensues—but Eisenhower’s case belies this. Medical fixes, which save us, save us only temporarily. They do not lengthen our time, remake our diets, or relax our competitiveness. Inflammation from stress exacerbates all illness. The lesson is that the body must balance movement and calm, which neither Lipitor nor a quadruple bypass can accomplish.

How odd that heart patients once had—before our surgical interventions—home remedies that cost nothing and worked for centuries, particularly for the willing. How odd also that we seem to have waylaid or lost such native wisdom. How might the caretaking effect be measured nowadays? Is lowering our blood pressure via companionship even studied?

One curiosity of heart recovery is the degree to which our partners contribute to our post-op well-being. What worked for Ike could work for us. The mystery is, why medicine has so little to say about the healing power of partnerships. Why don’t more doctors prescribe activity and cuddling as facilely as they do surgery and drugs?

Thomas Larson is a journalist, critic, and memoirist. He is a staff writer for the San Diego Reader and teaches in the MFA Program at Ashland University.

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