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Survival of the Fittest: Heart Murmurs

A reluctant cardiology patient fantasizes that his doctor has confused him with someone else.

Through some kind of mix-up, I have acquired a cardiologist. OK, it wasn't a total mix-up. We were in the not-implausible setting of the emergency room of a local hospital when he offered me his business card, and my blood pressure did happen to have risen to a level not recognized as entirely human by medical science. But that was a while ago, and more often than not the evidence of day-to-day life leads me to the conclusion that I am seeing the wrong type of specialist. I've never had the slightest pain in my chest whereas each thing that goes wrong with my house or car seems to give me a fresh one in another part of my anatomy.

"You've got the wrong guy. Do you know how many miles I ran this morning? For how long I rolled around on the floor with a medicine ball?" I fantasize about saying as a nurse attaches sticky pads to my naked torso. For those who've never experienced one, an EKG is basically a test to see how well you can stand having these pads ripped off your skin by a busy medical professional.

"Ouch! Holy—Are you out of your mind?" Once again, I do not pass this test with flying colors.

"Now, Mr. Baker," the nurse informs me after noting, I would guess, a "continued susceptibility to pain" on my chart, "the doctor hasn't actually come in yet. But when he does, you're one of the first patients he'll see."

"Has he at least left his house?"

"Oh good heavens, yes! He's just not here."

It is at this point—as I contemplate the battery of tests and the amount of waiting around looming ahead of me—that I am tempted to ask, "How do you know that's really my chart or even my heart? David Baker is a very common name. Must be any number of others it could belong to."

"But no one else with your unique and refreshingly irreverent take on what we do! We look forward to your visits as much as you!" is no doubt how she would respond if I did say this.

Still, with a name like mine, I do not always feel so unique. A passing glance at the "B" section of any reputable phone book reveals how many of us are out there, hailing from all walks of life and professions. Statisticians, dog walkers and horse thieves, we cut a swathe that is as wide as the country itself.

Back in the days when I was applying for professor jobs, I was not even the only David Baker from whom lucky employers received a resume. I know this because my wife once called the Chicago hotel where I was staying during the MLA and was put through to my alter ego instead of me.

Now for those who've never been to one, the MLA, short for Modern Language Association convention, is where college English departments from all over the U.S. interview job candidates, testing their reflexes with questions like "What happens at the end of 'Hamlet'?" or, should the interviewer want to go a little easier, "What happens at the beginning?" Even less fun than an EKG, MLAs are held in a different city's Sheraton or Hilton each year and are the reason why English professors are unable to stay in these hotels without waking up in a cold sweat from the nightmares they've been having.

Anyway, when he picked up the phone in his room, my alter ego's first reaction was that my wife was the woman who had just interviewed him for a teaching position at a prestigious California university. He was thrilled because he thought she was calling to offer him the job. But once he realized my wife didn't have the budget to hire him to mow a lawn, much less teach college English courses, he asked her if she would mind getting off the line.

"If the woman who interviewed me does call, I don't want her to not be able to reach me because I'm talking to you."

When my wife finally got through to me, she filled me in on her earlier conversation and then asked, in a rather mournful tone, whether I had yet heard back from my own interview. This was for a job at (here I may be misremembering slightly) Slippery Slope College, located somewhere in the foothills of North Dakota.

"Not yet, but I aced the question about how I'd enjoy moving to a climate with some of the biggest temperature extremes on the planet. "

As it turned out, my optimism about acing an interview and landing a job was about three years premature, but at the time my wife didn't know that. So naturally she was worried to hear I had done well on a question about temperature extremes.

"He did seem kind of rude but I'm still starting to wonder if there wasn't some kind of mix-up and I should've married a different David Baker."

"Hey, that gives me an idea. What if I called Slippery Slope and the California place and told them that, like you, they each contacted the wrong David Baker? He's the one who should be packing his bags for North Dakota."

How close we come to living the life meant for somebody else! If I hadn't merely been using humor to distract my wife from her pain at the thought of leaving civilization as she knew it and had actually made this phone call, perhaps my own life would have turned out very differently. For one thing, my cardiologist's office would have a view of the beach, and I would be able to watch the late-morning surfers while waiting for him to arrive. For another, when he did arrive, he would have some good news for me.

"It's the strangest thing, but I've been going over your EKG and your last echocardiogram. This is not the heart of a man who's been living a peaceful life of the mind in a balmy paradise for the last 20 years. This is the heart of a man who's endured terrible blizzards, been buffeted by spring tornados, and fried eggs on his back porch during the hot summer months. In short this is the heart of a man who's spent the last 20 years in the Dakotas, not here."

I shake my head. "Hardly the first time we've been confused."

"Are you telling me you know who this chart belongs to?"

"The other me. Poor guy. It's a sad story."

My cardiologist glances at his watch. "My next patient's already been waiting half an hour. Another few minutes won't kill him."   

"If you really want to know," I motion for him to have a seat, "it all started with a woman, a phone call, and two men who shared the same name but had opposite destinies…" And so I tell him about the mix-up at the hotel all those years ago and how one of us had found himself banished to America's equivalent of Siberia, where his heart promptly developed murmurs, palpitations, and even, I wouldn't be surprised to learn, a prolonged, anguished groan.

"There were months when the snow was so deep that he didn't see another living soul."

"My God, how did he do his teaching?"

"In the days before the Internet it was very hard."

"What about companionship? Did he ever marry?"

I sigh. "There was only one woman for him but he broke it off and she—never called back."

My cardiologist wipes a tear from his eye. "That is a sad story. Heartbreaking." He picks up the chart and takes a last look at its wavy lines. "I always suspected there was some terrible loss here. I just never knew what it was."

Then he closes the chart for good.

In reality,  by the time my cardiologist arrives, he is not overly fussy about which David Baker I am so long as I haven't actually expired while waiting for him.

"I'm sorry about the delay. We're a little shorthanded today."

"I guess you weren't expecting patients."

He smiles, picking up on my not-so-subtle sarcasm. After the briefing he's just received from the nurse, he's now lost any doubt he may have had that he's in the right room and is there with the right patient.

At least one of us is sure.

David Baker is a South Orange resident and an English professor at Rutgers-Newark. This piece is part of a series on midlife fitness.

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