By Jay Tell
ENCINO, California–Just when you’re on top of the world, you get blindsided. I was 21, in LA two years, my stamp and coin business was growing. I’d not smoked, but tried cigarillos. In the mirror I saw tiny specks on my chest, tried to flick off the dust, but it didn’t budge. I vowed not to smoke again, and never did. A friend suggested I see Stanlee B. Mazur, a woman doctor, unusual in 1965, who, quite simply, saved my life, making possible three beautiful daughters, sparkling grandchildren, and future descendants. It was the first time, but not the last, I would feel the warmth of God’s intervention. Truth is stranger than fiction. I’m no religious fanatic, but read this, and see if you, too, believe in miracles.
I thought everyone ran short of breath, playing trumpet in the high school marching band, running, playing baseball, basketball, or tennis, in which I lettered twice. Dr Mazur’s tests checked normal. After a puzzled look, she went to a closet, returning with a large, dusty device. She tested my thighs, showing half the blood pressure of my arms. “I’ll bet you have a coarctation of the aorta,” she said. The aorta, nearly an inch in diameter, is our largest artery. Mine was pinched, like a garden hose, to a pencil point, allowing a trickle of blood to my legs. It all started in my mother’s womb, not with cigarillos. She could have miscarried, except that nature intervened.
As a fetus, I was smart, even before I had a brain. A pinched aorta, blocking blood flow, should have been fatal, but I went into action. In the womb, I grew extra bypass arteries to carry blood around the crimped aorta. They started before the narrowed spot, some even going directly to lower areas, a miracle natural correction, to get me to full term, into the world, alive. No one should question research with stem cells, which can grow extra body parts – I am the proof.
However, there was a catch. The thin, frail, auxiliary arteries do not last. A slight heart murmur, undetected 21 years, was heard by Dr Mazur. The thigh test was a hundred-to-one-shot. But lower blood pressure can have many causes, so her diagnosis was a second bulls-eye. The combination boggles my mind. No general practitioner, to whom I’ve told this story, had taken a thigh blood pressure, or even owned a large-cuff machine. Have you ever had it done? Call it luck – I say it’s a life-saving miracle, Divine intervention. If that wasn’t enough, she sent a kid of 21, who knew nothing, to a renowned surgeon, Dr Jerry Kay. He taught Israel’s doctors heart surgery, which was in its infancy. After confirming the coarctation, Dr Kay told me how fortunate I was, to have seen Dr Mazur.
What’s the connection to chest specks? Those collateral, extra capillaries are temporary, to get me born, maybe to the teens. Doctors should have discovered this rare birth defect when I was a boy, but didn’t, and I was in trouble. Those hair-thin, extra arteries, those temporary conveyors of life-giving blood, sometimes last to 15, rarely past 20. They begin to burst, leaving pin-point specks on the skin, a warning they had done their job, but are giving up. By December, 1965, at 21 years, nine months, I was long overdue, perhaps within weeks of dropping dead. Yup, when the last of the extra arteries goes, you die; and, after an autopsy, they say, “Shame, unlucky guy, he had a coarctation of the aorta. Too bad it wasn’t discovered earlier.” Today, they can detect this in the womb.
In 1965 the operation was $5,000, but I had no insurance. I’d been on my parents’ policy, but, moving west, we let it go. I called, and, magically, the carrier said I was entitled to policy restoration on my own. I sent a check, and soon had a date for major surgery. Another miracle in this saga, and, as President Obama and the Democrats believe, no one should ever be denied insurance for a pre-existing condition.
Now for the hard part, telling my devoted parents, Jack and Bea Tell. In 1961, when I was 17, we moved from New Jersey to Reno, purchased Mark Twain’s Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, and moved to Las Vegas in 1962. In 1965 Dad began the Las Vegas Israelite, which is still going strong; brother Mike at the helm. Dad was a law graduate, press agent, and a New York Times assistant editor. I was a busboy-waiter at the Sands during the infamous Sinatra-Rat Pack era, and editor of the university newspaper. I moved to LA at 19, to expand my stamp and coin business, begun at 14 in the attic. By 1965, at 21, I had a store near LA’s Farmers’ Market. Later, I owned Nevada’s first health restaurant, Food For Thought, and published the Las Vegas Free Press.
I drove to Vegas on a Friday, but didn’t have the guts to tell my folks until Sunday. Surgery was set for Tuesday, but how would they react? “Dad, Mom, I need an operation.” Jaws dropped, panic drained them pale, a shocker from their seemingly healthy middle son. They had been through Mom’s seven life-saving, pioneering ileostomy and colostomy surgeries, when in her mid-30’s, 15-16 years earlier, in 1949-50, when I was six and seven. They knew seasoned surgeons at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, including Albert S. Lyons, Harry Yarnis, and the discoverer of Crohn’s disease, Burrill B Crohn, who had operated on President Eisenhower.
The operation corrects a birth defect, I explained. The aorta is snipped, the narrow section is removed, and the two wide ends are sewn together. I would have full blood flow for the first time, too late for growth (I’m 5-7), but vital for a normal life span. In closed heart surgery, they part the ribs through the left side. My parents were crestfallen, speechless, the pain in their faces. Then, Dad got angry, “We don’t keep secrets in this family!” This, I didn’t expect. Waiting to tell them was noble, I thought, but Dad wanted details. He called Dr Lyons, hero of Mom’s historic surgeries, after which she lived a half-century, healthy and vibrant, until her passing in 2000, from kidney issues. Personality-plus for 86 years, a happiness maker, she died too soon. Dr Lyons was home that fateful Sunday evening, three hours later in New York. Dad told the story. Did Dr Lyons know this birth defect, procedure, or surgeon? Should we call it off?
Dr Lyons said he’d call back in an hour. It seemed longer, and I regretted keeping this secret. Shielding family was, I realized, contrary to our close-knit bond. We got the call, on the edge of our chairs. “Dr Kay is one of the best, I don’t know how your son got him, but Jay is in excellent hands.” Talk about a last-minute pardon. This came from the doctor who saved my mother’s life. I now felt great, and was sure God was directing the show. After all, when tucking her boys in, Mom always had us say, “Thank you, dear God, for everything you have given us.”
My folks came to LA, met Drs Kay and Mazur, the operation was a success. Dr Mazur’s medical insight, and her sending a dazed kid to an eminent surgeon, still amazes me. She not only saved my life, perhaps within weeks of my demise, but made my young and stupid decision, to handle this myself, okay with my parents. Nothing gets better than that.
Five years later, Dr Kay casually mentioned a new discovery in this primitive field. “We now know,” he said in 1970, “that nearly everyone with a coarctation also needs their aortic valve replaced. Don’t worry, not for years, sometime when you’re older.” I was shocked, not good news, but at 26, getting older was way off in the future.
Dad passed on in 1979, Mom and my older brother, Don, at 61, in 2000, two weeks apart. I miss them every day. Fast forward to September, 2005, 40 years after the first operation. I was at my then-girlfriend Margie’s complex, with excruciating back pain. I put off seeing a cardiologist, despite shortness of breath. Denial is grand, but, remembering Dr Kay’s comment 35 years earlier, I knew. But this exhausting back torture came first, I couldn’t think straight. Doctors said I needed risky spine surgery, and who wants that? The aortic valve could wait. At 61, another mistake, just like at 21.
Hunched over, using a cane, I inched into the heated pool. A woman asked what happened. “Lower back, sciatic nerve, legs.” At that moment a stranger jumped off his chaise lounge. “I had the same thing,” he said, and we exchanged stories. I’d spent three days in the hospital, two months of killer pain around the clock, heavy morphine, an epidural, three surgeons wanted to operate. Jim, an athlete, had been incapacitated five years earlier, in bed four months. His problem, unlike mine, was inoperable. His doctors gave up, but he did not, and he found an amazing machine, an inversion table. Inexplicably, none of his doctors, or mine, mentioned this device. “It saved my life, you should try it,” he said. It was a slow, painful walk to his townhouse, but what the heck, I tried the gizmo. In just five minutes, it totally cured my back problem. If you have lumbar or disc problems, ask your doctor if you should try it.
Like most people, I’d never heard of an inversion table, a see-saw bench which rotates on an axle. You put your feet in sheep skin rollers, and slowly rotate to hang upside down, using gravity to straighten your spine, in some cases giving a bulge between discs room to recede, so it will no longer touch a nerve. Eight weeks of 24-hour back and sciatic pain magically disappeared –another miracle, like 40 years earlier. I profusely thanked Jim and his wife, and Margie, who was most supportive. I recalled an old wisdom: A stranger is a friend you have not met. I was now free to see my first cardiologist in four decades, for the other problem. That appointment was not likely without the back crisis suddenly cured, because of a stranger who overheard me say the words “sciatic nerve” to another stranger. What are the odds?
Echocardiograms, like sonar, use sound waves to create a movie image. Seeing my own pulsating heart and valves at work was fascinating to watch. The tech, Pat, and I chatted, but then her smile tightened. She took the printout, and left the room, a bit too fast. At 61, the time had come, the future had finally arrived. From age 26, I knew my aortic valve was part of the same birth defect, a rare two-flapped valve, bicuspid, instead of the normal three pie-shaped flaps. My two over-worked flaps were 75% closed, due to calcification at their bases. All flaps should be fully open, then, between heartbeats, fully closed, to prevent back-flow of blood into the left ventricle. My aortic valve needed replacement, yesterday. I needed urgent open heart surgery. Of the four surgeons recommended, one had been with Dr Kay back in 1965. This time, I did my homework. Doctors and patients raved about one surgeon in glowing superlatives, Alberto Trento, the gifted chief of Cedars-Sinai’s cardiac unit. His wonderful reputation was exceeded only by his caring. It was an easy decision.
My ex, Lorena, with whom I’m still close, kept me on her policy, each paying our share. In 2005 the surgery was $210,000, quite a leap from $5,000 in 1965. Dr Trento held my heart in his golden hands, all went smoothly. One surprise, the echo showed my flaps 75% closed. Afterward, in ICU, he said, “The flaps were 90% closed. I don’t know how you were breathing, but you’re fine,” another last-minute miracle. Since then, check-ups are good, with an echo stress-test on a fast treadmill. No medication, no restrictions, normal life expectancy. My cardiologist, Dr Blum, said he’d rather have my heart than his own. No smoking, drugs or alcohol, lots of water, no added salt or sugar, a calm demeanor – they all pay off. I should exercise more, however. No red meat, skinless chicken, fish, lots of fruit and vegetables. Blood pressure is 120 over 80, pulse 65; others say I look young. Most importantly, I was a shrewd selector of storks, with good parental genes.
With Medicare and a supplement, insurance is no longer an issue, but shouldn’t every American have peace of mind? Why should I have more rights to medical care than a younger person? The Democrats’ Health Care bill, the first in a century, is monumental, but only the first step. Selfish right-wingers protect insurance company profits, but every American has a fundamental right to health care. The Declaration of Independence says we have inalienable rights, endowed by our Creator, of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; but they are impossible, if you don’t have insurance.
The Constitution’s preamble, We, the People, our first words of law, says the purpose, the reason for our nation’s existence, is to provide for justice, tranquility, the general Welfare. Franklin Roosevelt said the only thing to fear is, fear itself. How can those who do not have health insurance live without fear? Can you imagine a parent’s terror, when an uninsured emergency or illness dooms their child? We spend trillions on unpopular wars and bailouts of banks – the least we deserve is health care for all, like in other countries. At each precarious step of my medical history, from the womb onward, I was a hair-breadth from disaster. Wealthy folks, Exxon, and all large corporations, should pay more taxes, the middle class less, the poor should pay nothing. If, at 21 and 61, I hadn’t had two long-shot insurance policies, you wouldn’t be reading this.
Thanks to Drs Mazur, Kay, Trento, and all the medical professionals. Thanks to a guy with innate goodness, for insisting I try his inversion table. Thanks to my parents, who taught me kindness and loyalty, and to my wonderful family and friends, for making life worthwhile. Bobby Darin died at 37, in 1973, from a pre-existing heart condition, which made him uninsurable. I thank my friend for continuing to give happiness, every day, to millions of fans around the world; and for donating his body to UCLA for heart research, so other kids could be spared growing up with his death sentence. Thanks to Presidents Roosevelt, Johnson, and Obama, for Social Security, Medicare, and Health Care. And, thanks to all those fighting for the universal medical coverage all American citizens deserve.
My mother was wise. She’d call a setback a blessing in disguise. I’m grateful for my blessings, especially for my loving family and delicious grandchildren. In Judaism we believe our departed are guardian angels, which I experienced first hand, from even before I was born. I searched for Dr Mazur, but when I found her address, she had passed away. She’s been watching over me, protecting her patient. I’m sure she knows my gratitude.
All my life, I’ve been covered under a secret health care plan. The best is yet to come, and may God bless you, too.
Tell is a Los Angeles stamp and coin dealer and freelance writer.
Google ‘Jay Tell’ for his Bio, and the Bobby Darin Tribute. Email jaytell @ hotmail.com, or write Jay, at Americana Stamp & Coin Galleries, 16060 Ventura Blvd., 105A, Encino, CA 91436; phone 818.905.1111
Editor’s Note: We previously noted in a column that we hungered for positive contributions about people whose lives are inspirations to us. We thank Sarah Cooper, and The Forum, the quarterly publication of Mothers and More, in which this article was copyrighted in the May issue, for sharing this first place essay. Sarah is the daughter of Jane and Dan Schaffer of San Diego. If other readers have positive stories to tell about the people in their lives, we urge them to share them.
By Sarah Cooper
My mom, Jane, is the last person I thought would get brain cancer young, at 61. She seemed indomitable, a road warrior on a mission. As a high school English teacher, she wanted to prepare students to tackle freshman composition in college, largely to make up for her failing grade in English when she was 18. After raising the essay scores of students in her school, she developed a nationally known writing program and incorporated her own business, in which she gave writing workshops for English teachers and published curriculum guides. Until three years ago, airports were nothing to her. When I went to college on the East Coast, she frequently flew out to meet me “on the way home” from a workshop in Dallas or Chicago—and home was in San Diego.
Along the way, she let me, her only child, watch TV at midnight during a bout of junior high insomnia,cajoled me into writing seven drafts of my college application essay, and cooked me over-easy eggs and toast for dinner. My own children are still little, but already I’m making my older son eggs and toast after school, buttered just as she did, and trying to say “Really? What do you think about that?”rather than ask too many invasive questions when I pick him up from kindergarten. Already I sense her seemingly laissez-faire yet critically observant eye in my motherhood persona.
Although my mom retired from daily teaching in 2001, giving a farewell speech at graduation in which she spoke of classrooms as “an oasis in adolescence, islands filled with rigorous academics andrelentless caring,” a year ago she had the chance to return to this oasis when she helped some friends teach AP English literature at her old school. The students called her “Mama Jane” and wrote her a poem, in sestina form, as tribute. During part of the year, my mom got chemo treatments on Thursday and returned to the classroom on Friday. She wrote up three-page lesson guides and sent them on to me, a middle school English teacher, so I could see her mind grinding through ideas. Last summer, buoyed by her recent teaching experience, she did her first writing workshop in years for a school that already knew her. Last October, she gathered several members of her “brain trust,” a group of people she hired to do workshop presentations, to brainstorm about her writing program for two days. Watching her—as she has continued to teach teachers, high school students, and her own grandsons—there is no room for me to despair.
Although I’ve always been pretty driven, I used to find it easier to take time to do nothing, to watchTV, to fritter away a couple of hours. Now I feel as if every minute must count. The clichés about seizing the day pile up because they are so true. We don’t know, any of us, how long we’ll be here. I also have less patience when dealing with people posturing about unimportant issues. “Cut the crap,” I think in my least charitable moments. “My mom has brain cancer. What’s your excuse?” And this tough-girl stance has changed my mom’s and my relationship. I used to complain to her about my worries, the slings and arrows that crossed my path each day. Our meals and shopping trips together used to be a litany of how my life could best be analyzed and scrutinized. Now the conversation is more give and take.
Aside from watching their physical pain, this must be hardest thing about a parent’s becoming ill: You say a final goodbye to your childhood, no matter if you’ve long inhabited adulthood. I feel healthier, more mature for it. I am more stalwart with my own family, more supportive for my parents, more unflappable at work—but at the same time, there’s still a part of me that wants to be taken care of by my mom. It’s been a while since she’s held me and said, “It’ll be OK. It’ll be OK.” Because, you know,it probably won’t. She will fight this scourge as much as anyone on earth can—friends have sent her Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” because she epitomizes the poem’s theme—but eventually, like all of us, she will die. And it likely will be sooner than my child or young adult self would have hoped or imagined. But in the meantime, I’ll be damned if I don’t choose hope over despair, each minute I am awake, to do honor to her take-no-prisoners, awe-inspiring, kick-ass example.
Sarah Cooper has been a member of Pasadena, CA Chapter 252 of Mothers & More for three years and is grateful to Mothers & More for introducing her to such dynamic women and important issues. She lives near Los Angeles with her husband and two young sons, Noah and Sam. Last year Sarah published a book on teaching, Making History Mine: Meaningful Connections for Grades 5-9.
By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO – There are times when I would prefer not to open my e-mail. So often it seems that the only people really motivated to write are those with some axe to grind.
These include a vociferous minority of Jews who seem to hate all Arabs and Muslims, and a smaller, but equally strident, minority of our people who take any opportunity to denounce Christians. As we refuse to run on our news site generic attacks on any group of people, these messages all are consigned to the trash, where they belong.
I find myself fantasizing at times that our e-mailbag will be filled with positive letters from people who want to write about the mentors in their lives who have motivated them to do good. How I would love to read—and to re-publish—letters and commentaries about those people whose lives were spent in service to others, and especially those who dedicated themselves to making peace between rivals.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, instead of clenching our jaws in anger as we read some missive, we could nod with appreciative understanding and admiration? Wouldn’t you like to read about people whose lives exemplify the highest aspirations—rather than the lowest emotions—of humanity?
I don’t believe that we will preserve and enhance Jewish life simply by being more militant than our adversaries. While there are short-term P-R gains to be made by counter-picketing and having questioners ready to contradict biased academic panels discussing the Middle East, our longer term goals will be served by publicizing not what we are against, but what we are for.
I believe that we Jews, as a people, must continuously articulate for ourselves standards of goodness that we can take pride in upholding, and core beliefs that others, upon reflection, will consider worth emulating.
One such belief is that every human being deserves to be treated with dignity, and that when we debase or dehumanize others, we undercut our own humanity. The great singer Aretha Franklin had it right, what people need and want is r-e-s-p-e-c-t, and we ought to give it to them, all of them.
I’d like to invite our readers to write to us about the people in their lives who have been positive influences on them, who exemplified values worth upholding, and who could benefit the world if only more people would profit by their positive examples.
Let’s discuss and refine our appreciation for the good. Please consider sharing with us stories about the people for whom you have r-e-s-p-e-c-t, and why!
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World