Treating a Heart Attack in the 1930s
In the winter of 1934, when I was eleven, one bitterly cold Sunday
afternoon Dad gave in to my entreaty and we went out to buy a few goldfish and a bowl. The
hill from our apartment building was a twenty-degree incline and quite a long way from
Riverside Drive to Broadway. I didnt notice that he was having trouble making it up
the hill, stopping every few minutes to catch his breath. We walked the quarter mile or so
along Broadway to the pet shop, got my fish and all the supplies, and went home. Dad said
he wasnt feeling too well, just tired maybe, and he laid down for a nap. Next
morning he was fit as a fiddle, or so we thought.
That afternoon when I got in from school, our maid Henrietta told me
theyd brought him home on a stretcher and that Dr. Friedman was with him. Mom
arrived home just as Dr. Friedman came out of their bedroom. He told my mother that Dad
had had a mild heart attack, nothing serious (boy, what they didnt know about heart
attacks in 1934!) and if he felt well enough, he could go to work the next day.
The following day, home he came on a stretcher. Hed had another
heart attack and this time it was enough to scare the hell out of even Dr. Friedman. Dad
was moved by stretcher to the guest room, where the shades were drawn, and he was told not
to move a muscle for six weeks. Just lie there. No radio, no newspapers, shades drawn, and
I was allowed in the room once a day to say hello. If I was playing in the apartment, I
was taught to be very quiet.
I have never met anyone in my life with the sheer willpower of my
father. He lay there for the prescribed period of time, a complete bedpan case. I was too
young to know if he was getting any medication, only that Dr. Friedman came every day to
check him. Sometimes he came with other men, whom I later found out were specialists.
Treatment for heart attacks back then was simple. You either died or got better. Bed rest
was the best solution for the time.
When Dad was able to get up, he was allowed to walk slowly around the
apartment for fifteen minutes at a time. He was weak as a kitten. As soon as he could go
out, he went to Dr. Friedmans office, where he had a final examination and then they
went into the doctors office for a chat.
"You smoke, dont you?" Dr. Friedman asked.
"Since I was a kid."
"We dont know too much about heart conditions at this stage,
Harry, but were learning. Im sending you to the best specialist I can find,
Dr. Masters. You havent been reading anything lately, so you wouldnt know that
his picture was on the cover of Time magazine. Hes invented a new test called the
two-step. Its a two-step staircase that you climb up and down while he monitors your
My father nodded.
"I can only say," Friedman continued, "that youre
lucky to be alive." Little did he know.
"Will I be able to go back to work and have something of a normal
"I think so. Oh, and by the way, youve had your last
My father stood up and took the cardboard box of beloved Helmar Turkish
cigarettes from his jacket pocket, put it on Friedmans desk, and started to leave.
Then he turned back, "No, thats not the way to do it," he said. He picked
up the packet and put it back in his pocket. He carried it with him for two years and
never opened it. When he was sure he wasnt going to smoke again, he tossed it out.
Dr. Masters was a wonder. Dad went on a whole bunch of medications to
thin his blood, got nitroglycerin to place under the tongue to stop the pain of an angina
attack, and started taking vitamins.
Up until then, vitamins were rather strange things given to children
along with a teaspoon of cod liver oil daily. The vitamins I didnt mind; I think I
could have been a sword swallower because I was able to gulp them down without water, but
the cod liver oil
yech! With my mother, however, there were no ands or buts,
it was just, "Open your mouth."
I didnt realize until recently how well she took care of me
during my growing years. Id been born with flat feet. Absolutely no arches at all!
Until I was well into my teens I wore Cowards corrective shoes, and later on Dr.
Scholl arch supports. During the Depression, before Texaco and millions of firemen hats,
my shoes cost four times what other kids shoes cost. My folks came up with the money
somehow. I was raised like the prince, not the pauper.
The one important thing I never learned was the value of money and how
to manage it. Ive been without it and never felt poor. Ive had lots of it and
never felt rich. Money has always been something to spend, loan, or sometimes give away.
Ive always hated borrowing, unless from a bank. If I have to borrow from a friend, I
carry that debt on my shoulders as if I can feel its weight until I repay it. That
emanates from a sense of responsibility I got from observing my parents behavior and
ethics. It was never anything we discussed at home, it was just the way I grew up. You got
a bill, you paid it. You owed a debt, you paid it. You owed someone a favor for a kindness
done, you found a way to return that gift with graciousness. You didnt kick the
other guy around or pick on somebody smaller than yourself, and you didnt hang out
with kids who did.