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Weinberg reflects on health before heading into retirement

Above, Medical Director Arnold Weinberg chats with pediatrician Janet Moses at his retirement party, where he was roasted by friends and colleagues who at one point displayed an "American Gothic" view of Dr. Weinberg in front of the podium (right).
Above, Medical Director Arnold Weinberg chats with pediatrician Janet Moses at his retirement party, where he was roasted by friends and colleagues who at one point displayed an "American Gothic" view of Dr. Weinberg in front of the podium (right).
Photo / Donna Coveney
Photo / Donna Coveney

(Dr. Arnold Weinberg, director of the MIT Medical Department for 14 years, retired this summer. He received many good wishes -- and some friendly ribbing -- at a party in his honor on June 27. But two years ago, things were more serious; he came face to face with a heart attack. MIT Spectrum editor Elizabeth Karagianis interviewed him about the episode and published this article in the spring 2000 issue of that publication.)

It was a sunny August morning in 1998, and Dr. Arnold Weinberg, director of MIT Medical, was playing tennis, happy that he was winning. The next thing he knew, he was at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital having a heart attack.

"For a doctor to have a heart attack is humbling," Dr. Weinberg says. "Through denial, some doctors think that nothing can happen to them. But what this did for me was point out what I always knew was true for everybody else -- anyone can have a heart attack. The event gave me several insights, including making sure I explained things better to patients."

Always he had been a careful physician, he says, but now taking eight medications a day, he knows how patients feel. "I know much better what medications I prescribe, why patients take them, why they forget to take them, and what are the side effects. Also, I now listen with more sensitivity to patients as well as to my family and friends."

Dr. Weinberg says that being a doctor and knowing the signs of a heart attack saved his life. At no time was he afraid he might die, he says, because he felt that getting early treatment would save his life.

"Running on the court that morning," he says, "the first thing I noticed was I seemed to have a bit of heartburn. It didn't frighten me, but it was atypical. I wasn't sure, but I thought this could be a cardiac event so the best thing to do was to stop exerting myself." His tennis partner, also a doctor, agreed he should stop the physical activity, so the two men rested a while but the heartburn didn't go away.

"When it persisted, we thought, why dilly-dally?" says Dr. Weinberg, adding that they hurried to the car and drove through a few red lights to Massachusetts General Hospital. "The sooner you get some intervention, the much greater chance there'll be less damage to the heart," Dr. Weinberg says, adding that by the time they arrived at the hospital, he began to feel heaviness in his arms and shoulders which convinced him he was having a heart attack.

At the hospital, an orderly met him with a wheelchair and sped him off to the emergency room. Doctors gave Dr. Weinberg two aspirins to thin his blood, then did a cardiogram and an angiogram of the coronary arteries.

The diagnosis was obstruction of a major artery to his left ventricle. Doctors then performed a balloon angioplasty. (They thread a fine catheter up to the area of blockage and blow up a balloon which breaks the obstruction.) Then they put a stent into Dr. Weinberg's coronary artery to keep it open. He spent the next week in the hospital.

(Weinberg says signs of heart attack include any chest, arm, or shoulder symptoms; a lump in the throat; pressure or tightening in the chest; indigestion; or shortness of breath. "But the key thing," he says, "is to notice any change in how you feel.")

Dr. Weinberg's advice to patients now is much the same as before the heart attack: Watch your weight. Reduce dietary cholesterol. Eat a high fiber, low-fat diet. Get exercise every day. Stop smoking. Reduce stress.

Now, he says, he also emphasizes "gradually increase your physical activity. Don't just all of a sudden go from being sedentary to being very active." (A calf injury had prevented him from playing tennis for six months. The day of the heart attack was only his second day of exercise since the injury.)

And, he says, "get to know your body. If there's something different, whatever it is, pay attention to it. Be aware if there's a change in any body function," he says. "At least stop for a moment and ask, gee, why? Denial is dangerous."

Before the heart attack, Dr. Weinberg ate a healthy diet, was at a good weight, was taking a cholesterol-lowering drug, and didn't smoke. "But I had one problem I couldn't overcome: age," says Dr. Weinberg, who was 68. "No matter how good your health, there is a certain amount of wear and tear on your arterial circulation over the years.

"I would say I was under less stress than a lot of people on this campus. A lot of people here are very stressed and maybe have other problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, weight problems, and lack of exercise.

"We can't completely avoid heart disease, cancer or stroke, but we can do some things to improve our overall health. And we can be aware of our own bodies, whether it's a mole on the skin that looks a bit different, or a change in bowel habits, or a cough that doesn't go away. The earlier we go to the doctor, the greater the chance we'll recover."

Dr. Weinberg says he hopes his heart attack can benefit others. "I hope to combine my own experience with a message that could be useful for folks in the community. If I were not a doctor, and didn't know how my body works, the heart attack could have been a much bigger problem. Had I ignored the body signs that erupted, it could have taken my life."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on July 12, 2000.

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