Boo-Yah! I’m Happy to be Alive

espn_sscott_01_600x600.jpgWhen the news broke yesterday morning that ESPN commentator Stuart Scott had lost his battle with cancer I once again found myself in a funk. The news hit me hard, but only partly because I was a huge fan. Yes, he brought us the classic home run call of “boo-yah” and when a guy like M.J. drained a game winning shot he’d remind us all that the player was “cooler than the other side of the pillow.” These calls stuck with us as sports fans and became part of the sports vernacular.

But while I was sad about his death because he was a great television reporter, I was even more upset that he died at such a young age — around my age. Stuart Scott and I are less than a year apart in age and while it’s always sad when someone dies young since my own brush with death a few years ago these deaths seem to hit me harder. I don’t know Stuart Scott and he didn’t have a heart attack, but I feel a closeness to him and other people who die young. And not just celebrities. I have the same reaction whenever I hear about someone my age dying.

I get really sad when people my age die; in fact, yesterday I was depressed for most of the day. I thought about his two girls and how they’ve been left without a dad. I thought about all the friends he had at ESPN and around the world. Man, 49 years is not enough time on this planet.

I’m sure everyone who knew Stuart Scott or who was a fan of Stuart Scott felt the loss yesterday, and I’m not suggesting I feel it more because of my own experiences. Plenty of people have survived devastating diseases and believe me many of them have had it far worse than me. I think it’s just that each time someone like Stuart Scott doesn’t make it I am reminded that I almost didn’t make it and that starts me off on the “woe is me” stuff. I know I have been extremely positive about my heart attack publicly, and for the most part I have remained positive in my personal life as well, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have freak out moments about almost dying and it seems to be more prevalent at times when someone my age dies. If my wife is reading this right now I know exactly what she’s thinking: shut up and quit whining. You want to change places with someone who is actually suffering? There are millions of people who’d trade places with you.

There’s a great quote from Woody Allen in Annie Hall:

“I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That’s the two categories. The horrible are like, I don’t know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don’t know how they get through life. It’s amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you’re miserable, because that’s very lucky, to be miserable.”

I need to remember that line whenever I’m feeling bad about my circumstances. Intellectually I get it, but sometimes it’s tough. The good news is, the sadness usually only lasts a short while. Which brings me back to Stuart Scott. He was one of those horrible cases. He suffered through seven years with cancer, including multiple surgeries and chemotherapy. I chose to share the old photo of Stuart in this blog post because that’s how I will always remember him, not as the frail man he became over the past few years as he battled the disease.

But more important than his physical stature, Stuart Scott exemplified what I think we all should strive for when the chips are down. The guy could barely move last year when he arrived at the Espy Awards to receive the Jimmy V Perseverance Award yet he was as cool as the other side of the pillow. For him staying positive mentally was far more important than being physically fit (though he did manage to take up MMA fighting while he was recovering from chemo). The line we’ll all remember from that speech at the Espy’s, and the one that is getting a lot of airtime over the past 24 hours, is this one:

“When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.”

So while my initial reaction to Scott’s passing was sadness, today I woke up with a renewed spirit to live my life to the fullest. Not all of us get a second chance.

Heart Attack? That Was So Six Months Ago

Today is the six-month anniversary of my heart attack. Milestones seem like a good time to reflect a little, so here are some random thoughts:

  • Thinking back to the early days of my recovery, it feels like I have traveled a “life marathon” since then. So much has happened, both physically and emotionally. Truth is the emotional has been more difficult.
  • Health wise I have made tremendous progress. Without getting too technical, my ejection fraction has gone from “about 30-35” in the days following my heart attack to “about 45” six months later. This measurement means my heart is working much more efficiently than it was at the time of my M.I. and is now pretty close to the normal range of “50-75.” My cholesterol is way down (much lower than yours I bet!) thanks to diet and medication. I have had no medical issues since my heart attack and in fact I’m probably stronger now than I was prior to the attack thanks to stronger blood flow through the three stents in my left anterior descending (LAD) artery. In other words, I feel great physically.
  • I am exercising without any issues 5-6 times per week.
  • The mental rehabilitation has been more complicated. Most days I feel great. Happy to be alive and feeling like I have the whole world in front of me. Some days I freak out that I had a heart attack and worry that I’m going to drop dead at any moment even though that is extremely unlikely. My cardiologist said he had a higher chance of having a heart than I do now. Still, it’s hard not to think about how close I came to death and how scary it would be to leave my family behind.
  • Some days I wake up feeling anxious even though there may be no apparent reason for the anxiety. It’s a nasty thing anxiety. If you’ve ever struggled with it you know it can manifest itself in physical ways including chest tightness, the inability to concentrate and even heart racing or palpitations. The anxiety comes less often now but it can strike at any time. If I seem short with you one day maybe I’m having one of those days. 😉
  • Some of my friends and co-workers seem to be worried that I have to avoid stress or I’m going to have another heart attack. To them I say thank you for your concern, but stress didn’t cause my heart attack and stress is not a big issue for me these days. Like everyone I have some days that are more stressful than others, but don’t baby me — I’m not going to drop dead from stress.
  • The biggest (and in some ways only significant) change in my life has been food. If you believe as I do that food can kill you and food can heal you then it seems like an obvious thing — eat well and you’ll be well. But it’s not that easy. There are three things I have to look out for — saturated fat, cholesterol and the biggest one, sodium. Lowering fat and cholesterol is really quite simple. I stay away from red meat and fatty foods. Simple. Sodium on the other hand is a bitch. Why is sodium so important? Well, sodium makes you retain water and that forces your heart to work harder and your blood pressure increases. You don’t want that, as a heart patient or as a normal person. It’s one of the biggest reasons why heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in America. The average American gets as much as 10 times the daily recommended allowance of 2,500 mg per day. As a heart patient, I’m supposed to keep my intake to around 1,200-1,500 mg per day. It’s not so much the added salt that troubles me (I don’t use any), but it’s the sodium in foods that you may not know about. Cooking at home makes things easier, but eating out is no fun. Do yourself a favor (and I won’t preach anymore) and check out the nutritional charts online for some of your favorite restaurants. It will scare the shit out of you. Before my heart attack one of my favorite places to eat was Rubios, where I’d typically have a shrimp burrito. The burrito has 2,200 mg of sodium, nearly double my daily allowance. Nowadays I still go to Rubios but I have the salmon or mahi mahi tacos on corn tortillas (190 mg of sodium per taco).
  • Eating out has become a social occasion for me rather than an eating event. For instance, tonight I am going to a concert with friends and we’re meeting beforehand for a meal. I checked out the online menu of the place we’re going and there’s really nothing I can eat, mostly because they don’t list their nutritional values on their site. I’m going to eat something at home beforehand and enjoy my time with my friends over a beer. This is, as my lovely wife likes to say, my new normal. I nearly lost my life because of food and I’m not about to give it a second chance to kill me. Most people who have heart attacks have more than one — I am never going to have another one because I am willing to sacrifice being a foodie for being alive. Yes, it’s a tough sacrifice, but I feel like I don’t have a choice. Not everyone who has suffered a heart attack makes this choice (some don’t even stop smoking), but I have too much to live for to let a little thing like food stop me from enjoying my life. I will miss you NYPD pizza and Rubios shrimp burritos…have fun killing someone else!
  • Lately I have thought about becoming a vegan. It is clear to me that a vegan diet is healthier for humans, and the research I’ve seen (including the film Forks Over Knives) makes a pretty compelling case. I was a pescaterian prior to my heart attack, meaning the only meat I ate was fish, but I ate a crap load of dairy and dairy is loaded with bad fat. From the way I’m eating now it’s not a stretch to get to veganism. Maybe if I make the decision it will take some of the stress away from worrying about meal preparation and eating out. It would certainly simplify it. I’m willing to listen to my vegan friends out there. Sell me.
  • I need a hobby. I love to read and watch films, but I need something more active. Any suggestions? Golf is fun but it’s expensive and it’s about to get hot in Phoenix. I’d love to go fishing if anyone out there enjoys it and wants to bring me along. I have a rod. Bowling maybe? At least it’s indoors which is a bonus here in Phoenix. I don’t really have an active hobby and frankly I’m a little bored in the evenings and on weekends. I certainly don’t want to work more!
  • I have been trying to be more active with my volunteering. I’ve always volunteered and done pro bono work, but these days it’s calling me. I’ve started to do some work with the Heart Association, helping them with PR and social media. I’m also looking into ways to be more involved with what my company has to offer in terms of corporate social responsibility. Apollo Group does a nice job in the community and I’ve already reached out to some folks in our external affairs department for ideas. I’m looking for something more in-depth than just doling out food or cleaning up trails — I’m thinking board level or committee chair. Send me your ideas. When I have been an active volunteer in the past it has come with many rewards.
  • I’m going to do more travelling with Leslie and Connor. I lost all of my vacation and sick time when I was on disability, so we haven’t done much travelling in the past six months. We did spend a wonderful weekend in Coronado at New Years and we’re planning something small for Memorial Day weekend. In July we’re going to go to Chicago to meet family and see some sites, and then after my vacation gets refreshed in August I think we’re going to plan something special for fall break. We’d also like to do something spectacular next summer — perhaps Europe. Having future things to look forward to makes life worth living.

Well, that’s about it for now. Consider this my therapy blog post! Six months post heart attack and frankly I think I’m doing great. People tell me I look great, which makes me wonder how I looked before October 15, 2011. I have lost about 20 pounds as a result of my healthy diet and I am exercising a ton so maybe I do look good! Oh, and methinks the goatee has outlived its usefulness so I think it’s coming off today to mark the anniversary. Hearing Josh Brolin make fun of goatees as “so 90s” last night on SNL was the clincher.

Thanks for reading.

The Heart of the Matter

leslieValentine’s Day is a silly made up Hallmark holiday designed to con men into buying flowers and candy, not to mention a corny greeting card inscribed with someone else’s sentiment. When you’ve been married for nearly 18 years, it’s hard to take Valentine’s Day too seriously. I can never figure out what to do for my wife on Valentine’s Day. She doesn’t eat candy and flowers seem so cliché. Jewelry is out of the question because she isn’t a big jewelry person and what she does wear belonged to her dead mother so how can I compete with that? This year I can’t even really take her out to dinner because I can’t eat much of anything on my post heart attack diet. I’ve been thinking about it for a few days now, and what I’ve decided to do this year is give her a gift from my heart — hell, it is my heart.

Dear Leslie,

Tomorrow is the four-month anniversary of my heart attack and I have made so much progress it is remarkable. But what is even more remarkable is how much you have been there for me. I always thought wedding vows were just a formality, but I have a new appreciation for “in sickness and in health.” It’s one thing to stand by your partner in tough times, but there are degrees of being there — not everyone is capable of giving as much as you have given to me over these past few months. From the moment Dr. Kerr called you from her office and told you I was headed to the emergency room you changed your entire life for me. Hell, you beat the ambulance to the ER and was waiting for me when I arrived! At that moment I put my faith in you to make decisions about my health because I knew after 17 years of marriage I could trust you more than anyone with life and death decisions. I never once felt scared because I knew you were there for me, which is why I seemed to be so cavalier about the whole experience. I was scared inside, but I also had a tremendous peace about things because I knew you were going to take care of me.

In the days and weeks that followed you took the bull by the horns and made my care your top priority. You didn’t just sit by my side, you owned this crisis and became an overnight expert on heart health. You researched all of my medicines and asked a million questions of my healthcare team, all so you’d know how best to take care of me. And then there was the food! I don’t think people understand how critical food is in the first six months post heart attack, but you do. Reading labels is only the start…but you went so far above and beyond the call of duty its astounding. I don’t think I had to cook a single meal in the first few weeks, and even today you make my eating life so much more amazing than it would have been had I been in charge. I don’t think there’s any doubt had I been alone on this journey I would be eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for every meal. In the past few months you have made — from scratch — a variety of meals fit for a heart-healthy king. Pizza. Lasagna. Sweet and Sour Chicken. Chili. Soups. Fish. Casseroles. Grilled cheese. Even hamburgers this week! All low fat and low sodium. This is no small task and I want you to know how much I appreciate it. And have I mentioned the bread. I had no idea that when you bought a bread machine I’d be eating every kind of low sodium bread under the sun. Rye. Pumpernickel. Wheat. Sourdough. Homemade bagels and buns! You are not normal and I am so damn lucky.

Not every wife would have come with me to all my doctors appointments, or reminded me to take my pills (and there are so many of them!). When I started cardiac rehab you came three days a week with me until I settled in and got comfortable. You are one of the only spouses who regularly attends the learning sessions so you can have even more knowledge to take care of me. But it’s so much more than my physical health that you’ve taken care of these past four months. You’ve managed to do all of this while still making me laugh, and going on walks with me, and taking me out to restaurants and parties and friends houses. You planned my first post heart attack “vacation” with an incredible weekend for all of us in Coronado over New Years and while it could have been so stressful it was instead a new beginning and it shed the light on our future together. We can travel and eat out and enjoy the life we were meant to share together. You even encouraged me to buy the expensive impractical car and you haven’t complained yet about my new (is it permanent?) facial hair!

It hasn’t always been easy. But I really haven’t had too many down periods since all of this shit hit the fan. On the rare occasions when I’ve felt overwhelmed, you’ve simply been there for me to talk to or to hug. You have been so strong through all of this, and though I know you’ve had your moments as well, they have been few and far between. You are such a strong person…I could only hope to be as strong as you someday.

Through sickness and in health. We have been together for 20 years and it hasn’t always been easy. Relationships are hard work, and there is a reason why most marriages don’t make it. But through it all, you have been there for me. This may have been the biggest crisis we’ve had as a couple, but there were plenty of smaller ones. The common theme though is that you always rise to the occasion. Whether it was Connor’s health issues or our ill-fated move to Georgia or my career fiascos, it never mattered to you — you simply did what comes natural to you and took charge. I think you are the most remarkable woman on the planet and I don’t know what I did to deserve you. You are the most beautiful, intelligent, funny, caring, sexy, amazing woman in the world and you’re my Valentine. And I’m your Valentine. I wouldn’t want to be with any other woman in the world…ever.

I love you and Happy Valentine’s Day.

Lenny

Three Months and Still Ticking

coronary_arteriesYesterday marked the 90-day anniversary of my heart attack which occurred on Oct. 15, 2011. I figured this is as good a time as any to give everyone an update on my condition, especially since I went to the cardiologist today. Here’s the latest:

  • I feel great. I am back to work full time, attending cardiac rehab twice per week, walking briskly 3-4 additional days per week, eating amazingly well (thanks in no small part to Leslie’s wonderful skills in the kitchen) and doing pretty well emotionally too.
  • At the time of my heart attack there were two main concerns — I developed a clot in the lower portion of my heart and there was muscle wall damage there as well. The good news from the cardiologist appointment today was that both of these have improved. The clot has shrunk considerably (the echocardiogram tech couldn’t even see it) and my heart function has improved as well.
  • Clots are common with heart attacks. The goal is to eliminate it, and to do that they put me on a series of drugs to thin my blood and lower my heart rate and blood pressure. The doc says another few months on the drugs and the clot should dissipate or be absorbed into the heart wall.
  • Heart function is measured by what is called an ejection fraction (EF). Basically it is the percentage of blood that’s pumped out of a filled ventricle with each heartbeat. A normal ejection fraction is anywhere from about 55 to 70. At the time of my heart attack the cardiologist estimated my EF to be around 35 and today it is closer to 45! An EF under 40 can be life threatening and may be a sign of heart failure, so the fact that mine went up so dramatically in just three months is a great sign. This improvement can be attributed to taking my meds, exercising and eating a low fat, low sodium diet.

So, what’s next? In mid-February I will be taking a stress test to see how my heart performs when my heart rate goes up. Since I have no other blockages and my stents have fixed the one I did have, I should be able to exercise vigorously going forward without any trouble and this test will show my doctor how my heart performs under duress. Even though I am exercising now with no trouble, my heart rate has remained low because of the drug therapy. I’d like to start increasing the intensity of my workouts so this will tell the doctor if that is ok. In March I have another appointment with my cardiologist to check my blood work (my cholesterol was around 70 in December…yes, 70, not 170!) and then a few weeks after that I’ll get another echo to see if the clot is gone and if my EF has gone up any more. I can have a very normal life with my EF at 45 but of course the closer to normal the better.

Physically I feel great. Psychologically I am doing good, but I still have bouts of anxiety although these are fewer and further between. The big mental part is wondering what the future holds and whether or not I will be able to do all the things I want to in life. Intellectually I know I will, but the anxiety can still get to me. It’s weird, but it hits at strange times like when I see a commercial on TV where someone is talking about retirement or when someone is working out really strenuously (damn you Gatorade!). I’m sure this will all get better over time, although I am seriously considering starting a local Meetup group for young heart attack victims to have some people to share stories with. It’s hard when all the patients in cardiac rehab are 20-30 years older than me! If you know anyone who might be interested in this kind of meetup group send them my way…

That’s it for now. Take care and thanks for listening!

To Infiniti…and Beyond!

What do you get when you take one 45-year-old man and add in a heart attack? A serious mid-life crisis! Surviving a heart attack last month really fucked with my concept of the future and now I truly understand what people mean when they say life is short. Shit, life can end in the blink of an eye. So why put off until tomorrow what you can do today?

For me, that means getting the car of my dreams. I have always wanted a convertible but old “practical” Len kept buying the Honda Accords and the Nissan Altimas. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with being practical and those cars served me well. But this life-altering event called for something really, really impractical! Why not, right? We have the Murano for long trips and hauling stuff around town, so today I got the flippin’ convertible!

Len Gutman would like to introduce the newest member of the family — the fully loaded 2011 Infiniti G37 convertible:

This is a car show image, but this is the car I leased today…black obsidian with wheat leather interior. Rear-wheel drive. V6. 330 horses. Retractable hard-top roof. Wicked sound system with Bose speakers built into the headrests. Navigation with real-time traffic. Heated and cooling seats.

I’m kinda diggin’ this whole Len 2.0 thing. You know you’re jealous! 😉

Len 2.0

I realize this is a cliché, but I have been thinking a lot about life these past few weeks and I sort of get the whole re-birth thing. I really do feel like I have a second chance at life and that has caused me to think about all of the things I always said I wanted to do but never got around to. I have also been thinking about past mistakes and regrets, and although I have made it a point not to dwell on the past, there are some things I’d like to go back and fix.

Yesterday, for example, I reconnected with an old friend that I lost touch with. I was thinking about all the great times we had in college and afterward and I realized I had no idea why we lost touch. All I knew is that I wanted to talk to him and find out what he’s been up to — and after a 20 minute phone call I felt great about rebuilding that relationship, hearing about his new family, and generally just knowing he was doing well. I’m not going to get all preachy during my recovery but if there’s someone important out there that you have lost touch with take the first step and give him or her a call.

My friend and co-worker Mike McClary and I both returned to the corporate world together last year after many years in solo practices and we agreed the second time around in the corporate world would be different because we were wiser, older and less concerned about all the usual corporate B.S. that made us hate corporate America in the past. We call this new attitude “Corporate 2.0” and for the most part we’ve managed to make it work. This has inspired me to call my post-heart attack life “Len 2.0”

Len 2.0 is more than just a philosophy though because I really did almost kick the bucket a few weeks ago! I remember after my mother-in-law passed away at an early age Leslie and I talked a lot about how she had done all the things expected of a wife and mother and when she was finally free from those responsibilities she always thought she’d be able to finally do all the things in life she wanted to do. She was young, had some money and had the desire…but it turns out she didn’t have the health and unfortunately she ran out of time. We always said we weren’t going to make the same mistake — we were going to do all the things we wanted to do while we had the chance. But it’s not so easy. Sure, we went to Hawaii a few times and I went back to school to get a master’s degree. But the truth is there are tons of things we want to do but haven’t gotten around to. That changes now.

I have actually created a bucket list. I don’t care how silly it seems — life is just too damn short. I’ve added a page to this blog to host the list and it’ll be a living list that gets updated as I think of more things I want to do. There’s not much there yet, but I assure you it will grow. Feel free to offer suggestions, but I can tell you now I’m not going to jump out of an airplane no matter what!

A Few Things That Make Life Worth Living

sunsetWe have a Thanksgiving tradition in our family that I’m sure many of you share — we go around the table before dinner and we each say what we are thankful for. It’s pretty corny I know, but we do it anyway and truth be told I never really put much thought into it. I suspect this year my entire family is going to look to me for some sort of sage advice now that I am a heart attack survivor (still seems weird to say that). But who the hell knows if any of us are going to still be here on Nov. 24 so I figure why not do it today (I have always been one of the world’s worst procrastinators but somehow now that seems like a bad way to go through life).

There’s a great scene in Woody Allen’s Manhattan where he talks into a tape recorder and lists the things that, to him, make life worth living.

There are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. uh… Like what… okay… um… For me, uh… ooh… I would say… what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing… uh… um… and Willie Mays… and um… the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony… and um… Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues… um… Swedish movies, naturally… Sentimental Education by Flaubert… uh… Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra… um… those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne… uh… the crabs at Sam Wo’s… uh… Tracy’s face…

In that spirit, here goes:

  • My wife Leslie Gutman and our son Connor Gutman
  • My family (especially my sister Jodi!)
  • Arizona sunrises
  • Tom Wolfe novels
  • Walking along the beach in Coronado
  • Every song ever recorded by Joe Jackson
  • A grande nonfat latte at Starbucks
  • A gorgeous pair of legs
  • Field of Dreams
  • Baseball
  • College basketball
  • Driving alone with the radio blaring and no particular place to go
  • An ice cold craft beer
  • Dexter
  • Conversations with friends
  • My iPhone
  • A Love Supreme by John Coltrane
  • Pedro Almódovar movies
  • Real Time with Bill Maher
  • Introducing Connor to new films, television shows and music
  • The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
  • Wasting an hour browsing for nothing in particular at a good bookstore
  • Dean KamenShai Agassi, and Elon Musk
  • Hearing One Shining Moment on the night of the NCAA basketball final
  • Chilling by a pool…any pool…with a novel and a beer
  • Seeing Connor’s excitement over the latest technology news
  • Quoting Seinfeld
  • Spotify
  • Teaching
  • My Barnes & Noble nook
  • Staying in touch with friends, new and old, on Facebook
  • ESPN SportsCenter
  • Honeycrisp apples

Well, that’s a start. What makes your life worth living?