Sports Writer Turns Attention To Heart Disease
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a moment, my "Can I Just Tell You" commentary. That's a little later.
But now we want to go Behind Closed Doors. That's the part of the program where we talk about issues we often don't talk about for whatever reason: stigma, shame, ignorance. And today, we want to talk about what seems to be a serious increase in heart disease among younger men.
Now we probably all have this image of who suffers from heart disease: somebody older, sedentary, retired, somebody with not a lot going on. The person we probably don't envision is somebody like Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon. He is the co-host of ESPN's �Pardon the Interruption.� He has front-row seats to the most high-profile sporting events.
About a year and a half ago, he and his wife, Cheryl(ph), were in Phoenix. Michael was about to cover his 21st Super Bowl. Both were eagerly anticipating the birth of their first child. What they weren't expecting was a late-night trip to the hospital.
That's where they found out that Michael, at age 49, had suffered a heart attack. Since that scary night in 2008, Michael Wilbon has worked to improve his health, and to educate other younger men about heart disease.
He's featured in an article in the current issue of Men's Fitness magazine about this. Michael Wilbon is here with me in our Washington, D.C., studio. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.
Mr. MICHAEL WILBON (Sports Columnist, Washington Post; Co-host, �Pardon the Interruption�): Thank you, Michel, for having me.
MARTIN: How are you doing?
Mr. WILBON: Pretty good, pretty good.
MARTIN: You look good.
Mr. WILBON: Yeah, well, thank you. I have to do things differently now and be aware and conscious of things now in a way that I wasn't. We're not raised in this culture to pay attention to those things. So I - when somebody says you look good now, I take that personally and a little bit more seriously than previously.
MARTIN: Can you just take me back to that day? And I'm sure it's not that comfortable to do, but can you just describe for me what it is that you were feeling? Did you feel that something was wrong?
Mr. WILBON: I was having what I call a Fred Sanford moment, you know, where you clutch the left side of your chest and arm, and the pain is radiating all the way down to your wrist. And it was - it woke me up.
I was trying to figure out how I could drive myself to the Emergency Room and not tell my wife because men don't even want to involve their wives in these things. And it was about three in the morning, and finally I decided I would wake her and say, we've got to go.
By the time we got to the Emergency Rom in Scottsdale, where I live part of the year, I was laboring. And when I walked into the Emergency Room, the attending nurse on duty at that point, I just said hi, my name is - she said you're having a heart attack. And I just�
MARTIN: Did - I was going to ask you. Did the idea of heart attack occur to you? Because being your age, that might not be the first thought.
Mr. WILBON: It wasn't. All sorts of things - I mean, that's why I got water. I'm having indigestion. I slept on my arm wrong. Why is my arm hurting? And it took me eight or 10 minutes of walking around at the foot of the bed before - I literally - I remember thinking, I'm having a heart attack. This is insane. And I only found out later, Michel, how many people have had this happen in their 40s, and even some guys in their 30s.
MARTIN: And I wanted to ask you about that. When it was confirmed that you were, in fact, having a heart attack and then, of course, you had to do all the (unintelligible). Do you remember what went through your mind? Was it that, it can't be me? Was it, what did I do? Was it - what do you remember what it is that went through your mind - I'm too young?
Mr. WILBON: Well, in my case, specifically - and you alluded to this. I mean, we were three months from having a kid, and I'm having a heart attack? What have I done? What did I not do properly? And then I found out all those things through, you know, a very smart, demanding cardiologist - in the next few minutes after surgery.
MARTIN: Now on the one hand, your job is extremely glamorous. I mean, it's the kind of job that a lot of little boys dream of having - and some little girls dream of having - but it is demanding physically.
There is a lot of travel, a lot of working odd hours. Your time is not your own. It's a lot of - sort of demand-driven. Were there factors that you think kind of set you up for this? What are some of the things that you think positioned you to experience this at this age?
Mr. WILBON: Well one, I found out family history trumps everything, and heart disease is in our family, specifically on my mother's side. My uncle, her brother, died at, like, 51, 52 years old, I mean, and he seemed to be the picture of health at the time. My grandfather died in the hospital of a heart attack, visiting someone - visiting my grandmother, actually.
So there have been these episodes of, you know, serious heart issues in my family. So I've got that working against me anyway, and then this lifestyle. And the lifestyle is finishing games and finishing writing on deadline or now, in the sort of a newer capacity for me, talking on deadline, doing, you know, shows after �Sports Center� and the NBA playoffs or during �Sports Center.�
I'm done working, no matter what I'm doing, no matter which one of my jobs I'm doing, I'm done at 1, 1:30 in the morning. And you haven't eaten since maybe 6 o'clock, pregame. What are you going to eat in College Station, Texas, at 1:30 in the morning? You're going to find, hopefully, a window of fast food that's open - burgers, fries, fried food, chicken�
Mr. WILBON: �all - pizza - oh, my goodness, pizza, ordered a million nights. And there are a bunch of you doing this. I mean, you're - it's very collegial.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon. He's the co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN, and we're talking about his heart attack, which he had at the age of 49.
You have, you know, a unique, albeit, you know, fun lifestyle, but the article presents some startling information about the increasing prevalence of heart disease among younger men. It points out that heart disease deaths have slowed dramatically since the 1960s in this country as we became more aware of the affects of exercise and smoking and so forth. But it says that trend seems to be reversing, and heart disease among younger men, particularly minorities, is a particular problem. And the article says that about one in 100 African-American men are developing heart disease by the age of 39. What's your take on this?
Mr. WILBON: I'm not surprised. A week after the heart attack, my cardiologist said look, you can go back to a treadmill. You can go back to exercise now. It's going to be controlled. You can only do, you know, 15 minutes and then 20 minutes and then 30 minutes. So I went and I joined a health club in Scottsdale. And I go in and I'm on the treadmill the first day, and because, you know, what happens in my life is public, a trainer comes over and he says hey, listen. You know, get well. We're glad you're here, I know what happened, and I'm the guy here - he introduced himself this way.
I'm the guy here who sort of deals with, you know, young guys who had heart attacks. And I'm like, are there that many, that you need to be a specialist? And he said well, yeah. And it's about 2 o'clock in the afternoon and they're about 15 to 18 guys in a big club on treadmills at the time at that hour. And he said, well, just in front of you like four, five, six - he counted off six or seven guys who had heart attacks. None of them were as old as me, and I was 49 at the time. None of them were as old as I was. And guys came over to introduce themselves, saying hey, it's good you're here. These guys will take care of you. This is great, because I had mine at 41. It's like this club you join.
MARTIN: What do you think it is? Is it the fact that a lot of folks, we work at desks now? Is it because fast food is so prevalent in our society?
Mr. WILBON: It's all of it.
MARTIN: Is it�
Mr. WILBON: I think it's all of it. You know, as my cardiologist said, what's stressful to you would not be stressful to me, and vice versa. You got to figure out what's stressful to you. And I'm going to give you six to eight weeks, and you got to get rid of it. And the combination of that and all these other things you mentioned, awful eating habits - and we have reversed. We have crested and we had this fall, and now that trend is reversing, in particularly, as you mentioned, among minority men. The stories you hear are just sort of shocking.
MARTIN: Well, talk to me, if you would, about some of the changes that you have made in your own life. And I'm particularly interested in the things that other people could emulate. Because you could just hear people saying, well, you know, look. You're big time. You know, you're a big-time sports guy and you probably got a trainer and you got, you know, somebody at, you know, at the hotel to hook you up and put you on the VIP floor and do all this. And so can you just talk about some sort of common-sense things that you did that you could do to make your life better so you'll be here?
Mr. WILBON: Yeah. Most of this is not - does not need hand-holding and does not need VIP treatment. Most of this is just discipline, which I didn't have a whole lot of. You've known me for a long time, and we're used to sort of - you know, you go and you do what you want to do, and that doesn't work.
MARTIN: Yeah. But the thing is I've always known you as a hard worker. And so to me, the key for you is can you give yourself permission to not do that second interview and a third and go take care of yourself? To me, that's part of it, but�
Mr. WILBON: And the answer was no. I couldn't. That's a great point, too. And, but as you get older, you're going to have to figure out how to either balance those things or cut something. Some of it's just discipline with eating. I mean, that's the number one thing. What I also found out the day that I went in and had my Fred Sanford moment was that I'm diabetic. So at one time, my blood sugar level was about 400 or something preposterous like that, and it needs to be about - between 100 and 150. I was hypertensive and I had heart disease. Boom - the big three. All - and they contribute, and it's not surprising. It sounds overwhelming, but all those things - diet controls so much of that, and exercise.
MARTIN: But you didn't know any of that? I mean, you have�
Mr. WILBON: Ah, I should've, you know�
MARTIN: You have health insurance, presumably, right?
Mr. WILBON: Yes. But, you know, going to the doctor's another whole thing that we don't do. Men in general don't do that, and African-American men do it even less. And that's whether it's going to get a prostate screening - no matter what it is, we don't like to go to the doctor. That sort of questions the heart of our manhood, if you will. And this sounds preposterous. These are conversations that guys actually are starting to have.
MARTIN: And you're a dad now, which is another whole layer - I know as a parent, talking to parents, you know, you've got this other little person who you're trying to, you know, take care of. How do you fit the exercise in knowing that, you know, you get off the road and you want to play with your son, as opposed to go to the gym? How do you fit it all in? What do you do?
Mr. WILBON: Well�
MARTIN: Do you tell yourself, I have to do it?
Mr. WILBON: I have to do it because I'm scared not to, because I look at him and I'm terrified of what would happen if this little boy didn't have his father. Seriously. That's literally it, because I'm still - I'm not going to sit here and say I'm hyper-motivated. It scares you to hear - my physician sat on my bed and said, listen. If you don't do the exact things I'm telling you to do, if you don't make these following changes, you will not see this kid reach 5 years old. He told me that before he was born. So that scares the daylights out of you. And then looking at him, I don't want to do that. So when you see the results, and I feel better, and there are indicators. I have to - I mean, I'm taking insulin twice a day, testing blood sugar levels, blood pressure medicines - I mean, six or seven things every day.
And it's a new reality. It's - in my case - it was sort of a, you know, the coincidence of turning 50 as this happened sort of brought me into a new reality as well. But it takes you telling yourself, or someone else telling you this, is real. This is unrelenting. This is a lifestyle change. It's not just something you can do now and it's going to get better. It's more complex than that.
MARTIN: How is it for you talking about this so openly? As we've discussed, first of all, there's the whole macho thing, right? There's that. Sports -you're a big sports guy. You're a big celeb. It's true. As you to alluded to earlier, you are a public figure. But you're used to talking about other people. You're used to talking about the Michael Jordans and the LeBron Jameses and what they're up to. You're not used to talking about yourself. How has it been for you to share this very personal experience, this very frightening experience, and now to decide that you're going to talk more about it so you can kind of get other people aware of what's going on? What's that been like?
Mr. WILBON: Well, one thing changed me and turned me around right away. I came home from the hospital, I think, on a Thursday after going in, you know, Sunday morning. When I got to my house, I had flowers or balloons or sort of get well things, very visual things from, among other people, Phil Jackson, the coach of the Lakers and Kobe Bryant, and people - you know, these are people I cover, obviously. And I had other well wishes from a lot of people. Wayne Gretzky was another person, and people who called - Larry King.
And every one of them - Phil Jackson had had a heart attack. I didn't really know that at the time, but you know, it was reported as chest pains or something. And Phil, we talked about this. It was like the identical thing. And he talked about it. And I just thought about public people.
And Larry King called me and said hey, listen. You have to deal with this, and you have to deal with it in a public way like - as he did. And I think talking to very public people - with Kobe Bryant, it was his dad. He was - it was high blood sugar, and what was coming from that and high blood pressure - I think, even more for Kobe's dad. And all of a sudden, I had very public people that I cover, and they were sort of, they didn't look at me as being weakened, which is what guys think, because of that. They didn't deal with that. Another - Ronny Turiaf, who played for the Lakers, plays for Golden State now. Here's a guy who at 25 years old maybe, 6-9, 250 pounds - well, Ronny had a heart situation as a rookie and had to - I think missed his rookie year. He was another one.
I had flowers from this kid. And I think, Michel, having people whose lives are always playing out in public whether they want them to or not, if they were willing to talk about these things and they didn't see me as weakened, then this is just some stupid notion I had in my head that I needed to get rid of immediately.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for talking with us about it.
Mr. WILBON: I don't want to say I'm happy to, but I am in a way that - I don't know. I guess if people sharing this will help guys deal with it a little better than we deal with these kinds of issues, then it's probably well- served.
MARTIN: Michael Wilbon is an award-winning columnist at the Washington Post. He's co-host of ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption." The story of his heart attack and recovery is reported in the latest Men's Fitness magazine. It's available now. You can also find links to the story at our Web site. Go to npr.org and then just look for the TELL ME MORE tab.
Michael, thank you so much for talking to us, and good luck to you.
Mr. WILBON: Michel, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.