If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it
— Toni Morrison


An Anxious Subject

Sitting across from me is Robert. He’s in his mid-40s and is perspiring lightly. I imagine if I were to take his pulse, it would be racing. These telltale signs of stress are common when patients listen to their diagnosis and prognosis from a cardiologist, delivered in what must sound like a foreign language. In some respects, it is a foreign language, saved only for doctors and medical personnel.

Like most of my patients, Robert has never thought much about the health of his heart, despite the fact that it’s a crucial organ responsible for pumping oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to every other part of his body, including his brain. Most of us just assume—or hope—our hearts will do their jobs and work well for as long as needed. Well, now Robert is having shooting pain running through his upper chest—the kind of pain that’s hard to ignore and that so often serves as a wakeup call that you do indeed have a heart and right now it might not be functioning as it should.

Thankfully, Robert’s family had hurried him to the hospital (as all families should do when someone is experiencing unexplained chest pain), where he underwent a battery of tests. Now he’s sitting in my office fearful and sweating. The doctor in the Emergency Department has already told Robert he didn’t have a heart attack, and now he’s waiting anxiously to understand what has happened to him.

As I start to explain his condition, Robert fidgets and looks at the certificates on the wall. I can see that he’s starting to tune me out. It’s at moments like these that I realize how many of my patients view their hearts as disengaged, casual spectators, removed from the situation. Heart health scares them and they feel they have little control over it, so they prefer to assume that doctors like me will fix it if something goes wrong. Often, even after they’ve had a good scare (chest pain being a common one), many patients feel that it’s all just too confusing and complex, and fail to actively engage in caring for their hearts.

Cardiology, like many other areas of medicine, can understandably be overwhelming. For most patients, a heart attack is unexpected. Many don’t understand even the basics of what has happened. But, the heart is much easier to understand than many realize. Each part has a specific function; all the parts work together to allow you to do the activities you enjoy each day.

For several years I’ve used the analogy of a house for the heart. As an artisan, I created this comparison to help my patients easily grasp how the cardiac system works and what happens when things go awry. My Heart House analogy draws direct comparisons between parts of a house—their functions and potential issues—to parts of the heart. This analogy may seem strange at first, but your heart has the same parts as your house—rooms, plumbing, walls, electricity, doors, siding, and a driveway—and functions in much the same way. I’ve found that making these comparisons helps patients remember the details relevant to them and their specific conditions. More importantly, once they understand what’s happening in their hearts, they can join me in determining the best course of action to keep them healthy and well, or the best way to restore their health. In the next chapter, we’ll take a look at my Heart House analogy.

Artisan’s Request: Empower yourself with knowledge and don’t hesitate to participate in your care with your doctor. The most important thing you can do for your heart health is to learn about it and be involved.