What Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (And I) Would Like You To Know
Here is what the great basketball legend has to say about discovering he is suffering from atrial fibrillation:
In 2021, I was leaving a Los Angeles Dodgers game and could not stand up without feeling so lightheaded that I thought I would collapse. I was eventually diagnosed with atrial fibrillation after my symptoms sent me to the hospital.
I was luckier; I didn’t have the same symptoms, but I ended up in the same place, in the emergency room around noon today. This morning I went to my quarterly visit with my family physician here in Milford. I walked over to the clinic — it’s in the next block in this small Northeast Pennsylvania town — checked in, and in a few minutes was in an examining room. The nurse came in and took my blood pressure, which was normal, pulse rate, also normal; my temperature was normal. This was just a regular check up during which my prescriptions would be refilled and I would be sent on my way, as I have been multiple times since moving here almost two years ago.
Then my doctor came in. His name is Dr. Joseph Cirello. He’s an easy-going guy who’s fun to talk to. We chatted a few moments, he asked how I was doing, and I answered “fine.” I did feel fine. I have asthma and a genetically-linked form of emphysema which responds well to treatment with a new kind of inhaler. And I’m 76 years old. I don’t move around like I did before; I can’t lift heavy boxes and things like I used to. But I’ve adapted. Other than my usual pulmonary symptoms, everything was good.
Then I got on the examining table, and he started listening to my heart and lungs. Almost immediately, he said my heart was beating abnormally fast with a tic in its rhythm. He ordered an EKG. A nurse came in and hooked me up, and the doctor returned a few moments later and said I was probably experiencing atrial fibrillation, a heart arrhythmia associated with a change in blood flow between the upper and lower chambers in the heart. In the 15 minutes between the nurse taking my vitals and the doctor’s exam with his stethoscope, my heart had gone into a-fib.
“I want you to go to the emergency room in Newton,” he said, offering to call an ambulance. I told him Tracy could drive me. He gave me a pill for the a-fib and another to thin my blood to prevent clotting (common in people experiencing a-fib), and told me not to worry. I asked him what caused a-fib. “Age,” he said.
I walked home, and Tracy and I got in the car and she drove me to Newton Medical Center in New Jersey, about 25 miles away. They ran the same tests on me in the emergency room with the same results. They gave me prescriptions for the same two medications the doctor had given me — Lopressor and Eliquis — and sent me on my way.
There are several odd things about the days events, and one utterly normal one. Just last night, Tracy and I were sharing complaints about the effects of aging, the little infirmities that creep into your life and show themselves as the days and months and years pass. We laughed together and told each other how glad we were that we are growing old together. “There is no one I would want to grow old with more than you,” Tracy said. I said the same thing to her, in exactly the same words. Then we went into the living room with our tea and coffee and watched the last episode of the latest season of “The Bear” on Hulu and marveled at how good it is.
One of the odd things is the timing of the diagnosis, coming the day after we had been chuckling about the effects of aging. Another odd thing is that I had recently pointed out an ad on TV featuring Kareem talking about his diagnosis of a-fib, warning people to listen to their heart beats, and if your heart is beating too fast, go see a doctor. I told her Kareem and I had shared the same doctor when I lived in L.A. 15 years ago, one of the best general practitioners in the whole city, Dr. Mitchell Spirt. Dr. Spirt used to tell me funny stories about what Kareem had said to him during his last appointment, and he said he did the same with Kareem, telling him about the time he gave me 11 shots in one day before I flew to Iraq to cover the war there, and all the pills he had sent me off with, like Cipro to deal with infections, and another one for malaria, which was still a problem over there.
The other odd thing was the coincidence that I had missed an appointment with Dr. Cirello back in December because I had written down the time wrong: 11:40 rather than 10:40 on a Wednesday. About 40 minutes after the appointment I missed was due to begin, I realized my mistake and called the office and said I could rush over, but they were stacked up that day and rescheduled me for January 5. Driving back from the emergency room, I told Tracy I was glad I had missed the December appointment. What if the a-fib hadn’t started by then? What if it was a day when my heartbeat was normal? It was sure a good thing that I had the appointment today and Dr. Cirello had caught it like he did.
I’m glad Kareem and I had a great doctor in L.A., and I’m glad I’ve got a great one here in Milford. As Kareem does on his TV spots, I urge you to pay attention to your heartbeat, and if it seems abnormal, or if you are experiencing shortness or breath or lightheadedness or unusual weakness, don’t hesitate. Go to an urgent care place or to your own doctor if he or she will see you and get checked out. Six hours in a busy emergency room was worth every moment, because Tracy and I can spend tonight secure in the fact that I’ve been diagnosed, and it’s a condition that responds easily to treatment with drugs that have been in use for years.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.