I Died On National Fried Chicken Sandwich Day, And All I Had Was The Salad
Day 5 · Always thought my death would be a one time thing.
“From the day we arrive on the planet
And, blinking, step into the sun
There's more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
There's far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found”
~Elton John & Tim Rice
[Day Five] · Always thought my death would be a one-time thing. As a comedian, I died many times on stage. Wednesday is the first time I died for real.
April 21, 1959 to November 9, 2022. 63 years, 202 days.
Left my wife and sons with a world of options I never had.
Died a happy man.
Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Nothing is certain but death and taxes.”
He was half right. But in 1788, even Franklin could not have imagined the defibrillator.
On Tuesday, I had no idea I would get to die at least twice.
That was before I knew I had cardiovascular disease.
When God took George Carlin, George stayed dead. When God took Norm MacDonald, Norm stayed dead. After taking me, God had second thoughts.
“Thought you’d be funnier. Gonna’ send you back and take Gallagher instead.”
Don’t believe me? Two days later — on November 11th — the Lord did just that!
Exercise and diet have long been a hobby of mine, which is to say, not a priority.
Got away with murder for 63 years. I was both killer and the victim!
My first life was about quantity and time was marked in years. My second life will be quality and time will be marked in days.
I write happily from my studio in Del Mar, CA, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, fully enjoying Day Five of my second life. I was released without restrictions and with five prescriptions.
I did not die because I am a stress case. I am not. I did not die because I optimize the time that I have doing work that I love. I died because blood stopped flowing to my heart. I had a total blockage.
They call it a heart attack. But, it’s really an artery problem and the artery has been repaired.
I’d been ignoring the occasional shortness of breath for nearly a year, telling myself: “Self — you really should get that checked sometime.”
On the day I died, I had shortness of breath walking on the flat of the beach, as opposed to the stairs and hills where I occasionally experienced it.
At noon, I go to the walk-in clinic because my primary physician recently retired, and I never do get around to replacing him. They set my appointment for 12:40. I go to a sushi place where I literally have the heart-healthy salad. Farm to table. Bourgeois. Proprietary salad.
The EKG is stable. However, they speculate I may have a blockage.
“Have you had cold sweats or chest pain?” she asks.
“Thank God for that. I’m going to have you see a cardiologist tomorrow.”
Couple of hours later in my studio — Boom! — cold sweat and chest pain. “So, that’s what she meant!”
Feels like death. Even my watch is confused. Keeps telling me I ovulated.
Thanks to the Q&A at the walk-in clinic, I instantly know to call 911.
“Can you come and get me?”
“What seems to be the problem?”
Channeling Brian Regan’s classic emergency room set, I’m like: “Seems? Well — it seems like I’m dying. But, I’m no doctor.”
I can barely eek the words out.
Del Mar Fire Department is on site in a couple of minutes. Must be eight guys.
My wife is always catching me doing things I’m not meant to do. Sure enough — ambulance backs up to the hospital. They open the door. Julie’s standing right there!
Trauma center is wheel-in.
Doors fly open. A welcoming committee of a dozen medical professionals stands at attention, ready to receive me. A woman I’ve never met rips my pants off. We never even went for pizza.
They know the numbers from the ambulance EKG. I remember my top blood pressure number exceeds 180. They bring Julie back to say goodbye, telling her things will be touch and go for awhile. She kisses me on the cheek, smiles and says: “This is going to be like a $10,000 co-pay.”
As we wait for my transport to the operating room, everyone is quietly huddled with Julie. Meanwhile, I feel my head slowly, gently tilting to the right. As my head veers slowly sideways like in a movie, my eyes simultaneously close. Different from falling asleep. More like a balloon with a pinhole. For a millisecond I wonder why my eyes are closing. I guess they gave me something.
I am dead.
My son’s fiancée has a cardiologist in the family. Apparently, the heart attack I had in the trauma center, only one in four return for more. Outside the hospital? You’re done. Hence the nickname: “Widow Maker.”
Prebys Cardiovascular Institute at Scripps Memorial La Jolla is the best place to have a heart attack. But, they need a snappy slogan:
“Have your heart attack with us!”
“Your table is ready!”
Don’t know how long I was out. Julie says she looked down to check a text from my son. When she looks up the whole place is at my side.
Open my eyes. Dozen people looking down. All eyes on me. I’ve performed for smaller audiences. I reflexively ask: “How many of you here for the first time?”
First line of my second life gets a decent laugh. However, the first review of my second life could’ve been better: “Smells like he defecated.”
By the way, can we agree that National Fried Chicken Sandwich Day has nothing to do with chicken. Nobody’s coming out for National Chicken Day. We’re celebrating fried.
Now that I know I have cardiovascular disease, I get PTSD at the drive-up. My disease compels me to eat only good things. I intend to be the best patient ever.
As they load me in the ambulance I’m thinking: “A new tight five.” Throw in National Fried Chicken Sandwich Day, now I’m thinking national tour!
You laugh. But, I believe my sense of humor is the reason I am able to write this essay. At every critical stage of the process — from 911 to discharge — I wasn’t the least bit worried because I was working — doing my job — trying to find the funny.
Paramedic struggles. I’m like: “First day with the EKG?”
ME: “You’ve done this before, right?”
DOC: “You’re my first one.
ME: “Let’s do this!”
I only have one regret.
Had I known the salad was going to be the last meal of my first life, I woulda’ got the chicken.
This post is dedicated with gratitude to the Del Mar Fire Department, Dr. Christopher Suhar, Dr. Vijay G. Menon, Dr. Jan Kulhanek, Dr. Daniel Ng, Jr., Dr. Elizabeth Epstein, and Dr. Namee Kim, together with every nurse, and staff member on the sixth floor of the Prebys Cardiovascular Institute at Scripps Memorial La Jolla. It is sheer happenstance that the most advanced heart institute on the entire west coast is a 10 minute ambulance ride from my production studio. Thanks also to the late San Diego entrepreneur and philanthropist, Conrad Prebys, who donated $45 million of his own money toward the construction of the $500M cardiac facility that bears his name.
Thank you for sharing your experience with such intelligence Mr. Whitney. You’ve reminded me to be aware of the quality of my days......
I’m happy you are here, thank you for being with us, & helping.
Rej Bains & Family
You just inspired me to live a healthier lifestyle. Or, to eat more fried chicken. Perhaps both?
Joking aside, I'm happy you're still with us, Mark. You make the world a less-bleak place by helping us laugh at all the bullshit there is.