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I’m Superstitious About Calling It a Miracle

3 minute read
Lance Morrow

I run little tests. This afternoon I hauled and stacked wood for an hour–big fireplace logs. Then I did a three-mile quick march with my dog along the road. I felt terrific.

Trying this a year ago, I would have been tempting that ominous stirring that I think of as the Shadow–the dark, incipient something in my chest, bad news that used to arrive with sweats, shortness of breath and pressures and pains wisping about the chest bones like evil electricity. A year ago, hauling the firewood might have killed me.

I am superstitious about calling it a miracle: I don’t want to invite further attention from the evil eye. But let me whisper that as far as I am concerned, the news about gene therapy is very good.

Because of severe coronary-artery blockage, I have had two heart attacks, two multiple-coronary-bypass operations (1976 and 1993) and a couple of angioplasties (1998). Last year, when I began having symptoms again, my choices–with further bypass impossible–were 1) to treat the trouble with continued medication (beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors, aspirin, furosemide and so on), hoping, further down the line, for a heart transplant; or 2) to try to sign up for one of the new, experimental operations (gene therapy or laser therapy) designed to encourage the growth of new blood vessels in the heart.

My cardiologist, Dr. Robert Ascheim, put me in touch with Dr. Todd Rosengart, then leader of a team at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City that performs both laser and gene therapy. Rosengart enrolled me among 10 heart patients who would be his second round of, er, guinea pigs for the gene-therapy procedure.

Rosengart performed the operation in mid-January. He made a 5-in. incision in my back–the scar feels as if I could mail letters through it–and pried open ribs (which still ache when I sneeze) to expose the heart, which he injected 20 times with a cold virus and DNA that instructs the heart: Grow vessels here.

A month later, I returned to the hospital for an angiogram, thalium scans and other tests. The thinking then was that the new vessels would grow in the first month–or not at all. The tests detected no new vessels. Failure. I reverted to Plan A and resigned myself to the prospect of, at best, a much restricted life.

But my face–once the color of a sidewalk, with a nasty eggplant underglow–began to turn almost rosy. It seems the body merely needed more time to follow instructions. Or perhaps new vessels had formed in the first month but were too minuscule to be detected by the angiogram. In midsummer, after six months, I returned to New York Presbyterian for more tests. They showed that formerly “hibernating” tissue on the front wall of the heart (not dead, but inactive) had reawakened. The ejection fraction (percentage of blood ejected with each heartbeat) had risen from 29 to 40 (normal is anywhere from 40 to 60). The new vessels had evidently materialized.

And so the Shadow for the moment has receded. A few weeks ago, I started playing squash again.

–By Lance Morrow

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