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Healing Words

Marc Wallack, M.D. '66 never expected to write a book. Then again, he never expected to have quadruple bypass surgery at age 57.

After all, he had run six marathons since 1997, and the stress tests he'd taken every six months or so had given him no reason for concern. So when he first felt chest pain while training for the New York Marathon in 2002, he attributed it to gastric reflux and the stress that comes with being chief of surgery at a major New York City hospital.

Several days later, when the pain moved from his chest to his chin and down his left arm, he knew he could ignore it no more. His cardiologist agreed, and two days later a cardiac surgeon was cracking Wallack's breastbone open, pulling his ribs apart, and using a vein and an artery taken from other parts of his body to bypass four nearly blocked coronary arteries.

Over the next few years, Wallack would become intimately familiar with the process that many of his own patients had gone through as they recovered from their surgeries. Their procedures may have been dissimilar to his, but in many ways the recovery process was the same. Eventually he decided to share his tips for becoming whole again in his book Back to Life after a Heart Crisis.

He drew inspiration from Lance Armstrong and his book It's Not About the Bike, in which the seven-time Tour de France winner recounts his ordeal of being operated on for testicular cancer, undergoing chemotherapy, and eventually training again for the Tour de France.

"I'm no Lance Armstrong," Wallack said, "but since I was a marathon runner, for me the end game was not just to return to work. It was not enough for me to see patients and teach medical students and residents; it was not enough for me to go into the operating room and operate. For me, to define myself, I knew I had to return to marathon."

So that's what he did. After about a year of general rehabilitative therapy and another year getting his runner's body back in shape, he completed the New York marathon in 2005.

Although Wallack didn't set out to write a book about his experience, he had found that jotting down notes about it had been therapeutic. "I had fairly severe postoperative depression," he said, "and putting some thoughts on paper about the whole episode was almost like a catharsis."

While he was in rehab, two of his best friends had heart attacks within months of each other. That's when he decided to write an article based on the notes he'd compiled. The article was published in the Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons in June 2006.

After the article was published, Wallack received nearly 250 e-mails from surgeons around the country thanking him for telling his story and expressing their gratitude for helping future patients prepare for and recover from their own surgeries.

While Wallack was pleased by the positive response he received from his fellow surgeons, their hunger for the information he shared with them didn't really surprise him: Before his surgery, his wife, Jamie Colby, had visited local book stores and searched the Internet for books offering advice on preparing for and recovering from surgery, but she came up short. "So I said I might as well turn this into a book," Wallack said.

By that time Wallack had returned to work as a surgeon, and today he's chief surgeon at New York's Metropolitan Hospital Center and vice chair and professor of surgery in the Department of Surgery at New York Medical College. While his experience at both ends of the scalpel gave him the knowledge he needed to help others prepare for and recover from major surgery, nothing prepared him for the experience of writing a book.

"I realized that I wasn't going to be able to do it alone," he said. "At the same time I was writing about my surgery I was also performing and teaching surgery and writing research papers. It was becoming overwhelming, and I was going back into the same stress pattern I had been in before. I realized that for me to write an entire book would be almost impossible without help."

So he got in touch with Alisa Bowman, a writer who has helped other authors with their books, including a number of New York Times bestsellers."I called Alisa on the phone, and it was like magic the first time we talked," Wallack said. "She said, 'I have to meet you, and I have to do this book.'"

By that time Wallack had compiled about 60 or 70 pages of handwritten notes. Over the next six months, he and Bowman talked regularly on the
phone, poring over the notes and developing the ideas for the chapters in the book. Then they re-edited each chapter.

"I would come out of the operating room and there would be a call waiting from her," Wallack said. "Then it was another two or three hours on the phone when I was already dead tired. Sometimes it happened two or three nights a week.

"It made me realize how difficult writing is," Wallack said. "It's really tough to get up every morning and feel that you're going to sit down and put words to paper. It's incredibly hard work.

"Without Alisa it wouldn't have been possible. She was superb; she got to the essence of me. She essentially took my notes, made sense of them, and brought out my tone and my voice."

Colby, a journalist and network news anchor for Fox News, contributed tips and observations from the caregiver's point of view. The book that resulted offers advice on everything from preparing for a hospital stay to recovering from surgery to dealing with your emotions and getting back out into the world again.

Wallack also discusses his professional life and the challenges of returning to work and facing co-workers' reactions. "People look at you differently," he said. "They look at you like you're compromised, and if you're in a position of leadership they begin to question your leadership capabilities."

The book was first published by Penguin in February 2010 and is now in its fourth printing. More than 25,000 copies of the hardcover have been sold; the paperback is due out in February.

"There really isn't anything else like this, where we take you through every step and tell you what to expect," Wallack said. "And it's not only about open heart surgery. It can be about anybody who has a major surgical procedure, including cancer.

"It's a specialty item, a kind of self-help memoir. There are some books that were written by doctors, but not like this. There's a lot of science in the book, but we don't give it to you in a clinical fashion."

What You'll Get out of This Book

An excerpt from Back to Life after a Heart Crisis by co-author Marc Wallack, M.D. '66.

Back to Life After a Heart Crisis offers inspiration coupled with a step-by-step program for creating a new and improved life. I like to think of it as Lance Armstrong's It's Not About the Bike meets Heart Disease for Dummies meets The Doctors Book of Home Remedies. Throughout the pages of this book, you'll find a step-by-step map that will take you from point A—where you are right now—to point B—the new, improved, and courageous you. You will find:

  • An eight-step plan for conquering your fear of living. After a major cardiac event, it's normal for everyday experiences such as walking down a crowded street, showing up for a doctor's appointment, or driving a car to lead to panic. It's normal for any activity that increases heart rate—from climbing a flight of stairs to a treadmill stress test—to trigger anxiety. You don't have to live with these fears, though. You can overcome them. You can get back to living. To do so, you'll face each and every one of these anxiety-producing situations. In Part 2 of this book, you'll find a series of chapters devoted to the most common fears of heart disease survivors. To make a full recovery and live life to the fullest, I recommend that you face these fears one step at a time. I'll be right there with you every step of the way, teaching you the fundamentals that helped me.
  • Answers to all the questions you are too afraid or embarrassed to ask. Do you want to know how to overcome your fear of death so you can rekindle your sex life? Do you want to know ways to get back to sleep at night? How about overcoming the anxiety of doctors' visits and test results? And what do you say to all of those well-meaning people who make comments and ask questions that put you on the defensive? You'll find answers to those questions, and many more.
  • Inspirational stories from me and other heart disease survivors. I'll tell you about a guy who was once hooked up to an artificial heart machine and now runs triathlons. And a type-A woman who was so career driven that she asked her husband to bring her laptop to the hospital, where she'd been admitted for chest pain. I'll explain how she learned to reduce her work stress. And there's the story of the man with a heart rhythm abnormality that has caused him to have multiple near-death experiences. That's right. He's seen the tunnel, heard the harps, and come back to tell us all about it. Is death as scary as we all think? Read his story to find out.
  • Help for the people who love you most. It's not easy taking care of us heart disease survivors. About 75 percent of caregivers report feeling strained emotionally, physically, and financially. Compared to non-caregivers, they have a higher amount of stress hormones circulating in their bloodstreams and, as a result, have weakened immunity and a higher risk of experiencing anxiety and/or depression. They may eventually develop long-term medical problems, such as heart disease and cancer. My wife, Fox News Channel anchor and attorney Jamie Colby, cared for me during my recovery. Throughout the pages of this book, she offers her advice to help caregivers survive this experience with you— without suffering undue stress in the process. For instance, one of her first caregiver tips in Chapter 2 will help you figure out what to do when you learn that your loved one has heart disease.
  • The specific advice you need to get better and stay better. You'll find delicious and easy-to- make heart-healthy recipes, an extensive heart-healthy restaurant eating guide (one you can follow), exercise plans, destressing advice, and more. It's everything you need to go from the doctor's office to the rest of your life!
  • A unique challenge. I will challenge you to do something truly amazing, something that proves to you, and others around you, that you are back and better than ever. I'll challenge you to take on a major physical accomplishment such as a walkathon, endurance cycling event, mountain climb, long-distance bike ride, hike on the Appalachian Trail, or another symbolic feat. You may wonder why the eight-step plan must culminate with a physical challenge. Isn't it enough to just be alive? Isn't it enough to have survived a major cardiac event? For many survivors, the answer is no. Most of us need proof that we really are alive. Most of us, after we claw our way back to good health and after our physicians tell us that every part of our bodies is in perfect working order, still have doubts. Physical accomplishments help you say yes. Yes, I'm back. Yes, I'm alive. Yes, I really can enjoy life again.

(Reprinted from Back to Life After a Heart Crisis by Marc Wallack, M.D., and Jamie Colby by arrangement with Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2010 by Marc Wallack, M.D., and Jamie Colby.)

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