James Gandolfini, beloved for portraying flawed mob boss Tony Soprano, was 51 when cardiac arrest ended his life. I was 38 when sudden cardiac arrest stopped my own heart from functioning for almost twenty minutes. Unlike Mr. Gandolfini, I was resuscitated. My heart, and I, beat the odds.
In the past 18 years since the most vital organ in my body short-circuited into ventricular fibrillation, I have watched news reports of other victims of cardiac arrest abruptly snuffed out in the prime of their lives: journalist Tim Russert, age 58, actress Brittany Murphy, 32; musician Joe Strummer, 51; pop superstars Michael Jackson, 51 and Whitney Houston, 48. Some of these deaths involved pharmaceuticals, some were possibly affected by lifestyle choices related to smoking, diet and fitness or illegal drug use, others had congenital heart defects. Ultimately, though each person had a compromised heart that could no longer accomplish its primary job; to beat rhythmically and pump nourishing, oxygenated blood throughout the body and to the brain.
After the shock of learning a famous person whom people revered, respected or even reviled has died from a sudden cardiac event comes the "Why?" phase. Not so much because we care deeply why it happened to them, but because, "If they dropped dead in the prime of their life, how can I make sure it won't happen to me?" And, pondering that question is a good thing. If only we would, please forgive me, take that pondering to heart.
But most of us don't. We puff up and point our self-righteous fingers to emphasize what these famous cardiac arrest victims were doing wrong and how they were responsible for their early demise due to a moral failing or lack of self-control. Gandofini was, "a heart attack waiting to happen!" blares a cardiologist, in an online sales pitch for us to buy his medical counsel. How incredibly offensive.
As someone who has experienced cardiac arrest and the resuscitation road back, and now feels the weight of "right living" on my shoulders every day, I find the onus to make healthy choices at every turn one of the most challenging parts of my very precious life.
Yes, Mr. Russert and Mr. Gandolfini were overweight. Yes, Brittany Murphy struggled with her own weight issues, conforming to Hollywood's decree that leading ladies be no larger than size 2, and later from being labeled too thin. Yes, Mr. Gandolfini drank alcohol during the meal before his collapse. Perhaps at one point, he'd been a smoker and/or struggled with substance abuse. Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston both struggled with drug demons and the intrusive pressures of fame. "We are all frail." Will Shakespeare sure got that right.
Why does this get me so riled? I do recognize how phenomenally lucky I am to have had the right people rush in to administer bystander CPR and use an AED defibrillator when everything in my body went completely, fatally wrong. There are very few of us who survive The Death Rhythm, ventricular fibrillation. A mere 8 percent of people experience clinical death, then leave hospital care with their heart intact and most of their brain functioning.
James Gandofini's passing hit me as if I'd lost a family member -- which I have. My own brother, Mark. Another victim of sudden cardiac death. He was 39. My brother was also a bit overweight. He was also, like everyone has said of actor James Gandolfini, a sweet soul, a deeply kind man, a gentle person. Like Mr. Gandolfini, my brother was not perfect in every lifestyle choice. He is, like Mr. Gandolfini, deeply, deeply missed.
That is what I wish we would all concentrate on, regarding the coverage of this untimely passing. Being good to each other. And to ourselves and our precious, often fragile bodies. Because, we are all frail. Let us celebrate that we were fortunate to witness the exquisite vulnerable and lacerating emotional work, the intelligence and generosity of James Gandolfini. Let us honor his life and in doing so try to be a little more like what we admired in him.
Tracey Conway is an Emmy-winning actress and former writer/performer on the Comedy Central series, Almost Live! She died and was resuscitated onstage. Her writing was recently published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Healthy Living Series; Heart Disease. She speaks about surviving Sudden Cardiac Arrest in her humorous program, Drop Dead Gorgeous. For more: http://www.TraceyConway.com