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Complications: The Story of My Heart

What I learned about My Heart 50 years after a First Grade Incident

Typical Pacemaker

My first neighborhood was Washington Heights, New York City, When I was six, I went to school for the first time. Our fathers took turns marching us (John Banks, Tommy Fallon, Joe Hornack, and me) from 179th Street and Wadsworth Avenue in the Shadow of the George Washington Bridge to Incarnation Catholic School, a mere 8 blocks away.

By Xman174 — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

This daily march continued into the spring when I suddenly had trouble keeping up with the others. This can be embarrassing especially when it’s your father yelling “keep up!”

But I couldn’t; in fact, I walked slower every day, with pain aching through my leg and arm joints.

My parents eventually realized I wasn’t faking it, and after a slow walk down the street to Dr. Blevins, we went to Columbia Medical Center and I was pronounced as having a case of Rheumatic Fever due to Strep Throat.

Rheumatic fever is an autoimmune disease that inflames the body’s tissues, such as the joints and heart. Healthcare providers may also call it acute rheumatic fever. It happens when the body’s immune system overreacts to a strep throat or scarlet fever infection that hasn’t been fully treated. — CDC

I was given a routine of penicillin, and eventually, the pain went away. From there, I was moved to a kids’ ward where one radio wall speaker provided my first tastes of Elvis and Robert Goulet.

For most of May and part of June, I lived in that ward, with occasional forays into the porch area overlooking the Hudson, traveling on my wicker basket wheelchair.

In 1957, they didn’t know what to make of Rheumatic Fever, and the safe prognosis was don’t exert yourself, and keep up with the penicillin and occasional electrocardiograms (then a 45-minute ordeal done in the home by the family doctor).

Then, as many of these kids would be, I was moved to the Mary Harkness Convalescent Home in Port Chester, NY.

An heir to the Woolworth retail fortune, Mary Harkness donated this mansion to the Columbia Medical Center primarily as a long-term recovery facility for Columbia pediatric patients that needed extended recovery time. I was transferred there at the same time as a friend I made in the hospital ward, Tommy Hughes. Tommy was 12 and I was 7 but we had our disease in common.

Tommy, however, was still in a wheelchair. So instead of being told to not run, he was told to not walk. Perhaps the Strep Throat had gotten farther along. I’m only guessing, because, within a few days of our being at Harkness, Tommy died.

From left, Brien Lee (author), Dennis Lee, Anne Marie Lee, posed in wooded area at Mary Harkness Rehabilitation Center

The doom and gloom started anew. It’s one thing to be told not to run, jump or skip rope in NYC until I was 12, but once I was released, my parents began planning to move us to the suburbs. How do you NOT run, jump, throw, swing, tackle, etc. when you’re surrounded by local baseball leagues, football camps, and bicycles? Too carefully.

When I was 67 in 2016, the chickens came home to roost. I had a series of 19 quick heartbeats — arrhythmias, and I just happened to be wearing a heart monitor prescribed by my new cardiologist. The phone rang and 6 days later I had. combo pacemaker-defibrillator. This regulates my heartbeat and prevents heart attacks by restarting the heart. This, my doctor told me, would make me “Iron Man.” One chamber was weaker than the other, but this mitigated that condition. I finally knew the results of my Rheumatic Fever.

But it also added a complication for my upcoming bone marrow transplant.. All treatment would also be monitored by the hospital’s cardiologist. He was very knowledgeable and had adjusted my pacemaker pacing and my medication to up my energy.

I had other things going for me as well — I hadn’t had alcohol in 36 years, so there was a complication I had avoided. I went into the preparatory steps feeling pretty good.

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