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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Back to work, and a date with a heart surgeon

By Ted Slowik

"Guess what Mom? I got a date with a heart surgeon!"

No, that's not what I told my mother, but it would have been funny if I did. Actually, my "date" is June 3. That's when I'm having a cardioverter defibrillator and a pacemaker implanted. The surgeon doing the procedure said he's done it more than 10,000 times already!

It's quite routine, apparently, and an outpatient procedure, which means I'll be back at work the next day. The miracles of modern medicine! My ticker will be all tuned up and I'll be good to go.

The hard part has been waiting these past three months for tests to show that I really need the device so insurance will pay for it. During that time I've been under doctor's orders to rest. It's been really difficult because I've felt fine but had to sit out on the sidelines while the world passed me by.

Fortunately that's over with and this week I went back to work. It's been wonderful seeing many good friends again and getting caught up with all that happened during my absence. I came close to feeling a bit overwhelmed at times, but I feel strong enough to cope with whatever comes my way.

Thanks again for all the support. I'm looking forward to getting back to writing about music soon and not having to just do health updates.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

To have surgery or not, that is the question

Doctor's note clearing me to return to work
By Ted Slowik

This is an obligatory follow-up post to last week's cliffhanger. In that episode, regular readers will recall, I was going to see the cardiologist to find out if I was healthy and strong enough to return to work and whether I still needed to wear a defibrillator.

Good news and bad news. The good news is I'm cleared to return to work. The bad news is I still need the defibrillator.

I'm certainly no expert, but in the 13 weeks since my near-fatal heart attack I've learned enough about the heart and medical terminology to carry on somewhat intelligent conversations with doctors. And I've learned the ejection fraction (EJ) is the percentage of blood pumped by the left ventricle of your heart.

In a normal, healthy heart, the EJ is 50 percent or greater. Mine's 35 percent. They'd like me to be at least 40 percent to be free of the defibrillator. Since my heart is weak, I'm at a higher risk of having another heart attack. The next time, I might not be so lucky. The defibrillator can shock me back to life.

You've seen defibrillators on TV. In shows where someone shouts, "Clear!" and then puts paddles on someone's chest and shocks them, and the body jumps, and the patient's heart either starts beating again or it doesn't. In real life, automatic external defibrillators are becoming much more prevalent in public places.

They're as critical a life-saving device as you can imagine, as important as someone doing CPR. Since my massive widowmaker on Feb. 17 I've been wearing my own personal defibrillator. The paddles are strapped to my chest at all times, in a bra-like wrap called a Zoll LifeVest. I carry a battery pack. I can take it off to shower, otherwise I wear it constantly.

Now that it's been three months since the heart attack and I still have a weak heart, I'm a candidate to have a defibrillator surgically implanted. It's not a pacemaker, it's a defibrillator. There are many varied types of heart disease and heart damage, and different devices, procedures and medications treat various conditions. I had a stent put in to clear a main artery that was 100 percent blocked, but I didn't need open-heart surgery.

Insurance will now cover the cost of having a defibrillator surgically implanted, which runs at least $50,000. On Tuesday, I consult with a specialist about the procedure and other options.

When I met with my cardiologist last Wednesday, I was leaning toward the option of delaying surgery another month or two. I'm only one month into a three-month cardio rehab program of intense physical exercise. I'd like to give that regime a little more time to see if my EJ number will improve. Mind you, I've been doing all I can to be more healthy: losing weight, eating a more nutritious diet, exercising an hour or more every day, not using tobacco, and taking medication for cholesterol. I've also learned that heart damage is reversible. Diseased hearts can become healthier over time when patients live healthier lifestyles.

Doctor says the cardio rehab won't really affect the EJ number, that only time and rest and medication will do that. Three months is typically the point where you're EJ determines whether you still need a defibrillator or not. Apparently I still do. It may be false hope to believe that my EJ can somehow improve in the next couple months, but I'm willing to continue putting up with the nuisance of wearing an external defibrillator all the time if it turns out I don't need one.

On the other hand, I could have a defibrillator surgically implanted, and not have to worry about it. Maybe they have to check it every so often, but it would be peace of mind. After all, my personal defibrillator is an insurance policy. It could save my life if I have another major event, so who wouldn't want one, right? If you look at it one way, it's a slam-dunk no-brainer. Have a life-saving device put in you that will keep you alive and you don't have to think about it? Well, duh...

But surgery is surgery, and no matter how minimally invasive they make it sound there's always some risk, right? Surgery is one good option, but it's not the only one, and it's often viewed as the most serious and last-resort option. Why, just this month I was reading about some people in Indiana who are suing over defibrillators they may not have needed. There's a great deal of debate in the medical community about the necessity of surgically implanted defibrillators, with strong arguments on both sides. Some say up to 25 percent of people walking around with implanted defibrillators may not have needed them!

Keep in mind heart attacks are like earthquakes. They're very difficult to predict. You never know exactly when, or even if, one will occur. I may be at a higher risk of having one, but that doesn't mean I will, especially if I keep doing things to reduce the risk.

So that's my current dilemma. Thanks to all for keeping me in your thoughts and prayers. I'm excited about returning to work Monday! Go Blackhawks!

Selfie in Evanston May 17

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Willpower is the key to healthier living

By Ted Slowik

Hi, all! Some of you have asked, "Ted, how did you quit smoking?" or "Would you share details of your diet?" Gladly! It makes me happy to hear that some of you are inspired to live healthier lives and that my situation may have played some small role in your decision. But first, you have to understand two key principles to really appreciate how I was able to stop smoking cigarettes and lose 35 pounds in 12 weeks.

First, the most important idea you need to embrace is willpower. You have to REALLY WANT to stop smoking and/or lose weight. You've got to mentally commit yourself 100 percent. I've quit smoking lots of times before and always left the door open a crack to pick up the habit again. This time, thanks to the near-fatal heart attack, I'm committed to stopping for good. So I don't even consider the possibility of smoking. Sometimes I dream I fell off the wagon and I get so disappointed with myself until I wake up and realize it was just a dream and I didn't smoke any cigarettes after all.

In the past, I've tried nicotine gum, patches, medication, county-sponsored stop-smoking programs, e-cigs, other oral substitutes like mints and gum--you name it. This time I quit cold turkey. Smoking is behavioral, and social. When I first stopped I had to remove myself from situations where smoking was too great a temptation.

On my guitar teacher Kev Wright's birthday I went to a bar where his band The Righteous Hillbillies were playing. There were so many people smoking right outside the door I could only stay long enough to wish him a happy birthday before I had to leave. A few weeks later, as I got stronger, I went to hear his band again and I was able to stay and listen for a while. The temptation to smoke will probably always be there. I try to not dwell on it and instead occupy my mind with other things. But always I carry with me the absolute conviction that I will never smoke another cigarette. Ever.

The other key principal is to paraphrase Daniel Burnham and that is, "Think Big." I didn't just quit smoking. I'm trying to save my life. I had to go all in. I have to lose weight so my weak heart doesn't have to work so hard. So I exercise to lose weight. If I was still a smoker, I wouldn't be able to exercise because I'd be short of breath. I couldn't lose weight if I didn't exercise. When every choice is considered as part of a bigger, overall program I've found it's much easier to make smart choices.

That said, here's a few specifics about my diet and nutrition regime. For starters, I eat a lot less. Portion control is key. You just mentally need to convince yourself that you are not hungry. Drink some water.

For breakfast I have something light. Oatmeal is best though many times on the run I'll settle for a granola bar. It's not the best choice because there's a lot of sugar in it but it's quick and light and settles my stomach. Sugar is the first and easiest craving to give up. Cake, cookies, ice cream, chocolate, etc., those are just no longer options for me. Actually, many fruits and juices have a ton of sugar. They're not the healthiest choices for you. I was able to stop craving sugar rather easily.

I cut way down on coffee, from maybe 10 cups a day loaded with cream and sugar to two cups in the morning, black. Coffee was a nicotine trigger for me. Sometimes now I have a cup of hot tea with honey instead. They sell decaffeinated tea, you know. For cold drinks I stick with water, sometimes unsweetened iced tea. Avoid soda pop, even diet soda. That shit's bad for you. Lemonade and other non-carbonated drinks usually have too much sugar.

For lunch instead of cheeseburgers and french fries I eat a salad. There are awesome salad recipes out there. Spinach is the best. You can make it with hard-boiled eggs, turkey bacon bits, red onions, fresh mushrooms and raspberry vinaigrette dressing. Or you can make it with cranberries and walnuts or almonds and blue cheese. Or you can make a garden salad with lettuce, tomato, celery, carrot and other fresh vegetables. Salads can make hearty meals. If I mix a big one for a family supper and there are leftovers, that makes a great lunch the next day.

I avoid bread, and cut out a lot of carbs. Instead of sandwiches I'll eat tortilla wraps. You toast or microwave a tortilla, and you can buy pre-cooked and seasoned chicken for fajitas. It's great with lettuce, tomato, guacamole and a little light shredded Mexican cheese.

I avoid fried foods. Smart Balance has replaced butter, margarine and every other oil in my diet. That's a cardio diet thing, but I've gotta do it. I avoid red meat, and instead use ground turkey, a lot of chicken and some pork. Though no "real" bacon. Turkey bacon is OK.

Green vegetables are the best: broccoli, kale, fresh green beans, etc. There's too much salt in processed, canned vegetables and soup. Cardio dieters have to watch their sodium intake closely. So except in moments of extreme weakness, no more frozen pizzas or pot pies or chips or move-theater popcorn. Basically I cut out snacking altogether.

I've had the luxury of time these past 12 weeks, and don't know how well I'll keep up the good nutrition regime once I resume working. It takes time to prepare meals from scratch, and busy on-the-go people sometimes have to settle for less-heathy choices. Also, sometimes when I feel hungry between meals I go for a walk instead, and I may not be able to do that as often.

Finally, it's OK to allow yourself rewards once in a while. I had steak once, and another time a milkshake! You've got to treat yourself. What's the point in living if you can't enjoy life? Just be responsible about it.

Dieting and nutrition are a key part to healthier living. So is not smoking. And for many of us, taking medication for cholesterol is a big help, too. But you've got to also embrace exercise. Think about it. If you're sitting on the couch for four hours watching episodes of "Game of Thrones" or a million other shows, you're not moving. You're not losing weight. If you're watching TV you're more likely to be tempted to snack and drink soda. You've got to keep that to a minimum. Go for a walk. Work in the yard. Join a gym. Do something. Don't just sit there. Move.

I'll remain committed to making the healthiest possible choices with a goal of losing more weight so my heart doesn't have to work as hard.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Recovery update: 12-week edition

By Ted Slowik

Well, hey everyone! Today it's been 12 weeks since my near-fatal heart attack on Feb. 17, and this week is the biggest to date in the recovery process.

On Wednesday (May 14) I see my cardiologist for the first time since March 12. If all goes well, he'll say I'm healthy and strong enough to resume work and other activities. Work needs a letter from the doctor saying I'm good to go, so depending on how smoothly the process goes I could be back at work later this week or early next.

The other option is to go on long-term disability, which I do not want. I forget sometimes how serious my heart attack was, and that my heart sustained an unknown degree of damage. Hopefully, the damage isn't permanent.

Just to recap for those who have been following my progress, in the past 12 weeks I've lost 35 pounds (was 250, now 215, goal is 180), quit smoking cigarettes (for good this time!), incorporated at least an hour of cardio exercise into my daily routine, adopted a much healthier and more nutritional diet, and been faithfully taking statin medication to lower the "bad" cholesterol that runs in my family.

On April 23 I started cario rehab. I go three days a week to a gym with other heart patients (I'm a good 20 years younger than the average participant). We walk on treadmills and ellipticals, pedal stationary bicycles and NuSteps, lift weights, receive nutrition counseling and other fun stuff. They monitor our heart rates and check our blood pressure several times.

I still wear a Zoll LifeVest defibrillator, which would zap me back to life if I should suffer another massive heart attack. I had an echo cardiogram on Friday, May 10. It's a lot like an ultrasound, where they slather a bunch of goo all over your chest and tummy and rub a device that takes pictures of your insides. When I see the cardiologist on Wednesday I hope the results show my ejection fraction is 40 percent or greater. That's the amount of blood pumped by your left ventricle. If that has happened I no longer have to wear the defibrillator, and I won't have to have one surgically implanted.

For a time, the LifeVest was beeping constantly, saying the connections needed to be checked. I'd check the connections and reset the vest then five minutes later it would beep again, so I temporarily stopped wearing it. I called the doctor to let him know.

"Oh no, you've got to wear it. You could drop dead at any moment," the nurse on the phone said.

They listed me as critical status and within hours a friendly Zoll service representative was at my house fitting me with a new LifeVest. Turns out I had lost so much weight the first vest was no longer fitting properly. They set me up with another, smaller vest and it's been fine ever since.

I've done everything I possibly can to make myself healthy and strong enough to handle the stress of work. It's not easy to lose weight AND quit smoking but I've managed to do both. With the new diet and exercise regime, I feel great.

I'm not the first or only American to have lived an unhealthy lifestyle. I ate cheeseburgers and french fries for lunch every day. I smoked a pack of cigarettes every day for 30 years. Americans are conditioned to believe we're free to choose things that are bad for us, that it's our right. That's true, but we're also free to make healthier choices. I now choose the latter.

I have to admit I'm a bit anxious about seeing the doctor this week and the prospect of returning to work soon, but I'm also eager to see my many coworkers again and resume my work responsibilities.

Thanks again for all the kind thoughts, prayers and many messages of support, especially from family whom I've come to love and appreciate more than ever. We all face challenges, and I feel I owe it to you all to be the healthiest, strongest person I can be so you can all give me shit for many years to come.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Happy Mother's Day to our Dr. Mom of 12

By Ted Slowik

Twenty-five years ago this week, the Chicago Tribune ran a front-page story about my family. It was Mother's Day, and the headline read, "12 Kids Can Add 'Ph.d.' To An Unstoppable Mom."

Actually, Mom is a doctor of education and holds an Ed.D., not a Ph.D. It's so unlike the Tribune to make a major error like that, but Ed.D. degrees were new at the time. Her thesis was about aging, and staying healthy later in life. She taught nursing, after all.

Mom's an incredible person, having raised 12 children then pursuing a career as a nurse and university professor. It's like she lived two lives in one, and she still found time to travel the world with Dad and enjoy time with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Dad was amazing, too, but there's something special about the bond between a boy and his mother.

In the summer of 1979, upon graduating from St. Cletus School, I went to live with my brother Stan in Colorado. I was 14. I was a having a great time. Then one day I received a letter from Mom. She wrote that she saw a boy who looked like me the other day and realized how much she missed me. I suddenly became very homesick.

I spent some time with Mom this week at the house where I grew up in Countryside. We did some light work together in the yard, planting a few tomato plants. Digging in the dirt on a sunny day, I was suddenly transported back to about 1970 when I would spend my summer days playing in a sandbox in our backyard.

It was wonderful, but sad at the same time, knowing Mom won't be here forever and that it's important to cherish the time we have together. Because after all, that's all any of us can hope for in life. After kids and career, it's really about spending time with family together and getting along.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Whatever happened to Bobbie Gentry?

By Ted Slowik

I love quirky rock 'n' roll stories. Bobbie Gentry rose from total obscurity to the height of fame in 1967 with her hit, "Ode to Billie Joe." For the better part of a decade she was a huge star on the country and rock charts and appeared on numerous TV shows. Then one day she simply walked away, and hasn't been heard from in 35 years.

"Ode" was a monster hit. In its first week of release it sold 750,000 copies (on its way to 3 million total) and knocked The Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" from the top of the Billboard rock chart, where it stayed for four weeks. It was the fourth biggest-selling song of 1967 and earned her three Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist--the first country performer to receive that honor.

Gentry was a trailblazer as one of the first female country artists to write and produce most of her own material. She was born Roberta Lee Streeter in 1944 in Chickasaw County, Mississippi. An only child, she moved with her mother to California at age 13 after her parents divorced. She took her stage name from the movie "Ruby Gentry," about a poor, rural seductress.

She studied and taught herself music in the 1960s, and a demo she made found its way to Capitol Records A&R man Kelly Gordon. "Ode" was recorded on July 10, 1967, in the iconic Capitol Tower in Los Angeles. The song was the B-side of her first single, "Mississippi Delta." Producer/arranger Jimmie Haskell reportedly asked Gordon, "'What do you want me to do?' (Gordon) said, 'Just put some strings on it so we won't be embarrassed. No one will hear it anyway.'"

Life magazine photo of Gentry on the Tallahatchie Bridge
But radio stations liked the B-side better, and "Ode" went on to become a classic. Like many of her early works, Gentry's song mentions landmarks, social and cultural references of her childhood, including the Tallahatchie Bridge (which collapsed in 1972). According to a 2013 article in Performing Songwriter magazine, Gentry is said to have once told rock journalist Fred Bronson, “The song is sort of a study in unconscious cruelty. But everybody seems more concerned with what was thrown off the bridge than they are with the thoughtlessness of the people expressed in the song. What was thrown off the bridge really isn’t that important.

“Everybody has a different guess about what was thrown off the bridge—flowers, a ring, even a baby. Anyone who hears the song can think what they want, but the real message of the song, if there must be a message, revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about the suicide. They sit there eating their peas and apple pie and talking, without even realizing that Billie Joe’s girlfriend is sitting at the table, a member of the family.”
In 2012, Roseanne Cash hosted the BBC documentary "Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry?" Though Gentry herself didn't appear in the documentary, the show's researchers reported, "At the end we heard that she'd phoned a couple of her old producers in the last few years--one, Rick Hall, to talk about Reba McEntire's version of 'Fancy'; the other, Jimmie Haskell, to say that she'd written a new song. He didn't have time to help produce it, so he suggested someone else. Bobbie never contacted them. And now she won't return Haskell's calls."

Roseanne Cash has performed "Ode" with guitarist John Leventhal numerous times, including at the Library of Congress in December 2013.

After the huge success of "Ode to Billie Joe," Gentry went on to record a half-dozen albums of original material and chart 11 singles. (She was not a one-hit wonder.) She recorded with Glen Campbell and performed on TV with stars like Tom Jones, Andy Williams, Carol Burnett and Bobby Darin. Here she is dueting with Johnny Cash. Here she is in an unlikely trio with Bing Crosby and Tiny Tim.

She was a huge star in Nashville, Hollywood and in the U.K. She was married three times, briefly to casino magnate Bill Harrah and then to entertainer Jim Stafford, and has reportedly lived quietly with her third husband in Los Angeles. One of her last public appearances was on Christmas night, 1978, as a guest on "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson."

Today, she's like the J.D. Salinger of 1960s entertainment stars. "Ode" shows how with just one song, an artist can achieve huge success and create a lasting legacy.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Searching for greatness among today's artistic entrepreneurs

Edgar Degas quote at Minooka High School
By Ted Slowik

Lately I've been struggling with the notion of artistic professionalism. I know many people--writers, musicians, photographers, artists--who are full-time, self-employed entrepreneurs pursuing their craft. I have the utmost respect for these individuals for having the courage to pursue their artistic calling.

Some have part-time jobs to help pay the bills (think of the cliche of the aspiring actor working as a waiter). But there's a clear difference between those fully committed to pursuing their art as a professional career, and those who have full-time "day jobs" and in their spare time pursue their art as a hobby.

I definitely fall into the latter category. Many years ago, as I was finishing college, I faced a crossroads and had to decide whether to chase my dream of being a songwriter/musician or take the responsible route and security of full-time work as a journalist. (An ideal combination of the two would have been to write for Rolling Stone but my half-hearted tentative efforts to pursue that opportunity did not result in a job offer).

So I entered the local journalism world of late-night school-board meetings and village board committees and obituaries and calendars and human-interest features, all the while collecting a regular paycheck, paid vacations and health benefits. No complaints or regrets. It wasn't a bad life.

Then one day, not long after my brother Jim died of a heart attack in 2009, I realized our time here is short. You only have so many days to create a legacy, and no one wants their final thoughts to be, "What if?" I began to wonder what might have happened if I had chosen to pursue a career in music instead of journalism.

Over the past three years the result has been a wonderful experience of personal growth as an artist. I recorded songs professionally and self-released them. My development and improvement as a performer, musician, vocalist and songwriter is undeniable. And hopefully I'll have time--years even--to continue that growth and find out just how good I can be. Maybe one day I'll write, play and record a song so good that I'll be remembered for it long after I'm gone.

While I feel great about my progress, I still think it's important to realize I'm but an aspiring professional, one not even in the same class as those artist entrepreneur friends I mentioned earlier. This isn't false modesty or a lame attempt at self-deprication. If you need further explanation of the difference, check out the Coen brothers' movie "Inside Llewyn Davis." In a pivotal scene, one night the drunken folk singer protagonist of the story heckles an amateur performing on stage.

"I do this for a living!" he shouts.

Still, these days it's more difficult than ever to define what makes a professional artist. In the old business model, a record company would sign an artist. Talent scouts and impresarios were employed to hire new artists. Once signed, they had the resources and support of producers, other musicians, marketing and publicity professionals. By being signed, fans were assured that this artist passed muster and was deserving of professional status.

Nowadays, anyone can call themselves professional. The Internet created cheap distribution. Home recording technology has become so inexpensive that anyone can sound professional. It's easier than ever to put your stuff out there. The problem is, it's so easy millions are doing it! There aren't enough gatekeepers in the world to sort through and keep up with all the new art and music out there and recognize talent deserving of a wider audience.

Because while a lot of original art and music out there may be good, very little of it is great.