“As I walked away with my refreshments, I felt something peculiar. It was so strange it stopped me mid-step. I was forty-five years old, and I had felt many things, but never before this particular feeling: I felt a click deep inside. The image the sensation produced in my mind was of a BB, a small round piece of copper-colored lead, falling into a socket. It was a very clear image. A BB is tiny, but the one I imagined felt infinitesimal, microscopic. Yet I felt it, a click, metal on metal—like an expensive, microscopic gear had slipped, some exquisite piece of machinery falling out of alignment. Some medieval example of craftsmanship, a gyroscope, something intricate, needing fine balance. The feeling, the event, was located in my chest, below my left breast. It was thoroughly interior, as if a signal had been sent and registered, what those giant satellite dishes are poised waiting for, a transmission from deep space.” — from Chapter 1
That was October 26, 1991, in what became a singularly awful day in the life of William O’Rourke. Minutes later, at the beginning of a Notre Dame football game, he began to suffer his heart attack. O’Rourke’s account of that day, and everything that followed, is personal, informative, humorous, and highly literate. With its extended description of what an MI feels like and how people around the patient react, his memoir provides a bedside view of his experience and all of the emotions—both extraordinary and quotidian—that accompanied it.
What is startling is how that momentous event, the heart attack, divides life irretrievably into a “before” and “after.” Gone are the assumptions of what is safe and healthy; replacing them is a newly-forged relation of mind and body, a treacherous one which breeds a physical paranoia that only lessens after months. O’Rourke vividly describes the extreme pain of the attack, the forced inactivity of recuperation, and the melancholy of embracing life anew while accepting a heightened awareness of mortality. He knows his luck in having supportive family and friends, and uses his time away from normal routine to examine his family history for likely genetic proclivities for heart disease.
Through his description of his experience—from MI, to angioplasty, to cardiac catheterization to, fourteen years later, a quintuple bypass and a second round of cardio-rehabilitation—he asks us to change behaviors we can affect and pay attention to our health. It does, after all, come down to this: “Here’s to life.”
Enriched with a medical glossary and selected bibliography, this is a helpful compendium for other recuperating patients and their families, or anyone concerned about heart disease, or interested in memoir.
“O’Rourke’ s book and its long description of having a heart attack may scare the bejesus out of you, but it certainly sheds a lot of light on the subject. He’s writing about what he knows and he knows a lot. His book is full of life—full of heart—and necessary reading for anyone who’s ever thought twice about the tough organ that keeps us alive.” —Malachy McCourt, author of A Monk Swimming and Bush Lies in State
“The story of William O’Rourkes’s heart attack is as compelling as a thriller because it is a thriller. As always, O’Rourke’s prose is crisp, witty, and wholly original. The chronicle of his recovery demystifies a frightening illness, leaving a reader enlightened and, unexpectedly, cheered.” —Valerie Sayers, author of Brain Fever and Due East
“In the first few pages of William O’Rourke’s gripping book I learned what it feels like to have a heart attack and how the press or pleasure of daily events can keep us postponing the visit to the Emergency Room. Now, I tell myself, I’ll be prepared even in the middle of the night or at a sports event. Thanks to my husband’s many years of MS, I did have an idea of how important a good doctor, a ready wife or husband, an eagle eye for proceedings, and even chance can be in determining one’s future—but the uninitiated in such mysteries will find On Having a Heart Attack to be full of first person insights.” —Maggie Strong, author of Mainstay: For the Well Spouse of the Chronically Ill
“For anyone who has ever had a serious medical crisis, or been close to someone who has, William O’Rourke’s book is essential reading. O’Rourke takes us on a fascinating, compelling journey into the literal and figurative heart of a gloriously full and fragile life. He illuminates much about our vitality and our mortality, and the ways in which fortune and modern medicine can collaborate in our individual and collective fates. This is a rich tale by a splendid storyteller—a most unforgettable, informative, and deeply moving memoir of one man’s struggles and triumphs.” —Jay Neugeboren, author of Open Heart: A Patient’s Story of Life-Saving Medicine and Life-Giving Friendship
“A must-read for practicing physicians, cardiologists, nurses, physician assistants, and the general public. . . . This is an excellent, thoroughly informed book. It will be helpful for recuperating patients and their families and for anyone concerned about heart disease. . . .” — Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol.296, no.2, July 12, 2006
“This very personal account of exactly what it was like to have a heart attack, to notice medical personnel somewhat hesitant to treat him until they saw his insurance card, to contemplate the possibility of dying before his son turned two, and to make lifestyle changes to lower the risk of a second attack is frightening, moving and sometimes funny.” — Booklist, April 15, 2006
“Despite its somber subject, the book is as gripping as fiction, full of drama, conflict, and angst. . . . While convalescing, O’Rourke read all he could find in the literature of MI (myocardial infarction) but met with a singular lack of comprehensive accounts of the physical and psychic experience itself, and how it affects the family and friends of the patient. This he supplies with wry wit and unsparing rue, distillations of the novelist’s second nature-attentiveness in calamity, and richness of recall.” — Provincetown Arts
“Books about heart attacks and heart disease abound, mostly authored by health care professionals who specialize in the treatment of heart patients or work as nutritionists. Books written by actual survivors of an MI . . . are rare and a book, such as this, written by someone who is both a survivor and a noted author, is certainly the exception . . . This memoir is much more than just a self-help book. The author examines the many personal thoughts the patient stricken by a heart attack unavoidably encounters. . . . It is a book that doctors and nurses should read and learn from, and one that all those should read who are potentially threatened with heart disease.” — Third Coast
Bronze Award Winner in Health category, Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award for 2006Included in University Press Books Selected for Public and Secondary School Libraries for 2007 by the American Library Association