Getting to the heart of the matter after a health scare
Mortality is a bitch. Having survived the 1980s and, by some twist of fate, not acquiring HIV/AIDS, I felt that I had somehow cheated fate. Once The Epidemic began, I figured I would end up checking out sometime in my mid 40s, if I was lucky.
And though I had pretty much withdrawn from the community and settled for suburbia, the Sword of Damocles was always hanging over me. If I got a cough, I was sure it was pneumocystis pneumonia. Every spot or bruise became Kaposi’s sarcoma. I got tested and huddled awaiting the diagnosis that never came.
I re-emerged into the community after a few years and realized so many people I knew were no longer around. Many of those who were still around now struggled with HIV and the side effects of the early treatments.
It all gave me a healthy dose of realization of the fragility of life.
Cut to today.
I am wired up to several machines, all constantly monitoring the one single organ that makes all life possible — the heart. I never expected to live much beyond 40 since that was the life expectancy of most of my friends from the 1970s. So reaching the age of 65 — a birthday I hope to celebrate later this month — was something I never planned on.
Funny how I dodged an HIV infection I once felt sure would end me, only to be ambushed from another angle when I thought I was safe.
It started with a lingering case of bronchitis, most likely acquired while at a leather event in Tulsa. The persistent cough didn’t want to go away, so I sought medical help, which consisted of antibiotics that cleared up the cough but left me with a pain in my chest.
But after a couple of days it was subsiding. And in addition, I had become short of breath and felt fatigued very easily. Finally, while having breakfast with my partner Patrick, I realized that the simple act of chewing toast was wearing me out!
That surely wasn’t left over symptoms from the bronchitis. After some soul searching and discussion with Patrick, we decided a trip to the hospital was in order.
When I sat down at the admissions desk at Baylor Hospital in Dallas, they took my pulse and asked if it was normally low. I shrugged my shoulders and responded, “I never tracked it much.”
Within minutes I had been whisked into a suite filled with high-tech medical machines and I was wired to just about all of them. It was about this time it hit me:
This was not bronchitis; this was my heart.
As I was explaining the events leading to the visit for the third time, a doctor entered and confirmed that, indeed, it was my heart and I was probably looking at getting a pacemaker.
The room came to a complete stop. People were frozen and the words echoed in my ear like a bad special effect from a film: “Getting a pacemaker.”
That was something “old people” had. I’m not one of those!
In my ear the voice of a delightfully acerbic friend who died many years ago whispered with his amazing Southern lisp, “But you are Blanche, y’are.”
In my generation, gay men didn’t age. They stayed young, and lithe and pretty. They danced to Donna Summer and partied til dawn. They cruised the leather bars and had anonymous encounters in the baths.
They were smart and independent and upwardly mobile. They were politically active and loud and visible. But they were never old.
Part of that was because of the youth culture and part because of The Epidemic, which snatched so many men at their prime. Aging was not on the radar.
So, here I was getting a diagnosis of heart disease, followed by a prognosis indicating I would live many more years, most likely with this gadget implanted in my chest.
What is that all about?
All I heard was “heart disease” and the rest of the prognosis rolled off me. I was annoyed because I had so much more to do — writing, politics, activism, work, sex. I didn’t have time for heart disease!
After three days of being confined to a bed, wired to monitors and having to ask for assistance with the simplest functions, like taking a leak, I began to understand what had happened and who I was and what I really had time for.
First, I was given a major dose of humility as a parade of friends filled every minute of every day with visits, messages and well wishes. I did not deserve such good friends, but I graciously demurred to their judgment and accepted their gifts of time, prayer and company.
Second, I was put through a battery of medical procedures, which were fascinating and frightening, especially when you read the fine print on the “informed consent” paperwork.
Third, I was given the gift of a good deal of time alone, to contemplate what had happened and what could happen and just what was important in life. It also gave me a lot of time with Patrick to discuss our fears and let each other know how much we loved each other.
Finally, it gave me a lot of time to be with God, or at least my interpretation of God, and that gift assured me that the great mysteries are still there, that I am not the center of the universe and that what we call grace is real.
So where does that leave me?
Well first, no pacemaker! Turns out I had two sizable blockages, both of which were removed during the angiogram. I had had a heart attack and didn’t even realize it.
It also leaves me with the realization that the people left in my generation still have a lot of work to do. We still have gifts to give the community, and we are valued for our experiences.
Yes I am old, and for that I am truly grateful.
Hardy Haberman is a longtime local LGBT activist and board member for the Woodhull Freedom Alliance. His blog is at DungeonDiary.blogspot.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 10, 2015.