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Reflecting on how to spend my last years

Published on -8/8/2012, 9:36 AM

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I celebrated the Fourth of July this year by having a heart attack. All things considered, watching fireworks would have been more fun.

I woke up at 2 a.m. on July 5 with raging pain in my chest and both arms. I was bathed in a cold, clammy sweat, and my breath was coming short. I was slightly nauseous.

"Gee," I said to myself. "I wonder what's wrong?"

Apparently, I was waiting for a Western Union messenger to come to the door and say: "You're having a heart attack, stupid. Call 911."

It went on like that for a few hours until my wife woke up too and convinced me to get help. An ambulance brought me to the emergency room, where a team of doctors, nurses, attendants, and God-knows-who else was waiting for me.

It was like being sent through a cardiac car wash. I went in on one end with a heart attack; I came out the other an hour later with an unblocked artery, a stent and an optimistic prognosis.

They told me they expected me to return to close to 100 percent. (This was particularly good news as I haven't been close to 100 percent in years, if ever.)

I'm told that my reluctance to seek immediate help is fairly typical of men. Even male doctors often go into a state of denial when confronted with symptoms that can only be a heart attack. They wait. It's a guy thing.

If you take only one thing away from the newspaper today, let it be this:

If you start showing symptoms of a heart attack, even if they're not as dramatic as mine, don't screw around. Call 911 and have an ambulance take you to the hospital. The treatment starts in the ambulance.

As a cardiologist friend told me: "They say time is money, but in my business time is muscle." The longer you take to get treatment, the more heart muscle is destroyed -- permanently.

The upshot of this is that I've suspended writing this column indefinitely. (I can hear the moans of anguish across the nation now.)

And there's a real question as to whether I'll start writing it again when I feel better. (I can hear the cheers and shouts of triumph drowning out the moans.)

I'm now 77 years old. I've been doing this -- writing columns -- for nearly 50 years, 35 years of it in Washington. I can tell you that things have changed, and not for the better.

I've covered fools, crooks and charlatans over this half century. But for the most part, they had some sense of seriousness about them -- an appreciation for the national interest as they saw it. Even rogues like Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon did.

The current bunch of miscreants is nothing like that. Centrist Democrats, who talk a good game but don't do much about it, are battling increasingly radical Republicans, a fierce tribe of Bible-thumping know-nothings fueled by money from modern Robber Barons who want to sell the country off by the board foot and metric ton for their personal profit.

Thus we approximate the times described by the Irish poet W.B. Yeats:

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Does that describe Congress or what?

Do I want to spend my time left deciphering such people, trying to decide whether the Republican leaders are as stupid as they sound or merely willfully ignorant?

We are well on our way toward becoming a nation on the colonial model, where a few people own everything and the rest of us play the lottery and watch football. That's not the America I grew up in. It's not the America I spent my life writing about.

I have to figure out whether I want to spend my last years writing about this new country.

I'll let you know.

Donald Kaul, Ann Arbor, Mich., is a retired Washington columnist for the Des Moines Register. He covered the capital for 29 years. dkaul1@verizon.net

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