My dad had his first one in his early 50s. Then came quadruple bypass surgery. Four blood vessels in his heart had become clogged with thick, waxy sludge. Surgeons snipped parts of a vein from his left leg, stitching it around the blockages.
I remember the jagged slit: four cuts stretching from thigh to ankle where the vein had been. And the chest wound left by the bone saw that the surgeons used to pry open his sternum to reach the heart. That scar never fully healed. It puckered, darkened, and stood out to me like a harsh warning.
Dad wasn’t alone. Every few months, we’d visit friends who’d also had bypass surgeries. The men would unbutton their shirts to compare scars.
I knew a healthy lifestyle and medications might delay my heart attack. But I never really believed that I could prevent it. I felt at the mercy of my genes.
Someday, I would shift from being healthy to sick.
This was a big reason why I became a doctor: to help my patients (and myself) stay well for as long as possible. It was about holding off disaster.
But in all my years in practice, I never really saw anyone get better from heart disease or diabetes just by taking my prescriptions. Their lists of medical problems, medications, and side effects grew. And my frustration and disappointment deepened.
This hopeless feeling is something I had in common with Tim Kaufman. He’s not my patient, but he calmly tells me his story via Zoom. He used to feel just like me. He saw an early death as inevitable, despite more than a decade of care from a host of doctors.
Until he didn’t.
In his 20s, Kaufman was diagnosed with a painful disorder. This led to a sedentary life and addiction to opioids, alcohol, and fast food. By his late 30s, he took more than 20 prescription drugs to manage his chronic pain, blood pressure (BP), and cholesterol.
Still, his BP and heart rate were dangerously high. His blood pressure reached 255/115. (Normal is less than 120/80.) His heart rate clocked in at 125 beats per minute. (Normal ranges between 60-100.)
Kaufman weighed more than 400 pounds. He doesn’t know the exact number because his doctor’s office scale didn’t go that high.
“I had gotten real sick, real fat, and real addicted — real quick,” Kaufman says.
Eventually, he began to believe that this was the body he was given, this was his DNA, and he’d just have to accept the misery.
When his doctor tried to add yet another medicine to the mix, Kaufman threw the prescription in the trash on his way out of the office. Finally at a breaking point, he felt that his doctor couldn’t help him.
Kaufman set a sobering goal: to delay his own funeral for as long as possible. And he wrote himself a prescription: “Get up from the chair two times tomorrow.”
“I had gotten real sick, real fat, and real addicted — real quick.”
Kaufman has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), a genetic connective tissue disorder. He’d always had flexible joints. As a kid, he did “circus tricks” to entertain his friends.
His condition got worse. Something as mild as a loud sneeze would dislocate his shoulder.
As an adult, newly married and with a growing family, Kaufman had his first joint surgery. Afterward, his doctor said the procedure had been very hard to do. Instead of tough fibers that keep the shoulder in place, Kaufman’s tissue was loose, weak, and stretchy, like chewing gum.
To protect his joints and avoid more surgeries, Kaufman was told to limit physical activity. Get a desk job, he recalls his doctor saying.
That was when he got his first taste of opioids. The mild chronic pain he’d always had would fade for a few hours, only to roar back when the meds wore off. Working with his doctor, he upped his doses until he was on opioids 24-7.
With strict limits on activity and worsening chronic pain, Kaufman started to self-medicate with vodka and fast food. The diseases of a sedentary life (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar) began to pile up. So did the medications to treat them. And he needed crutches and costly custom-made knee braces.
But there was something even more painful than the physical suffering. It was seeing pity in the eyes of Heather, his wife and high school sweetheart.