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|A doctor snaked a tube up my femoral artery to look into my heart.|
Fiery jerk chicken, savory empanadas, scrumptious tacos, hummus, falafel; hand-made kimchi and dumplings, pristine sushi, Neapolitan pizzas, the best baguette south of Montreal and some of the freshest whole fish you can find in North Jersey.
That celebration of food ends when you walk through the doors of Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, where I spent the better part of two days this week undergoing tests.
At the hospital, food is an afterthought. My medical history was taken four or five times, but no one asked me what I eat or discussed how my diet affects my health.
I had four or five meals prepared by a kitchen that says "no" -- as in no caffeine, no salt and no taste. At the bottom of a sheet of paper listing what was on my tray, "LoF50" appeared, and I took that for "low fat."
Who put me on a low-fat diet? I haven't eaten meat since February 2010, preferring heart-healthy fish and other wild-caught seafood, and to lose weight, I've also cut out bread and pizza.
My first hospital meal on Monday was a tuna-fish sandwich fed to me by a nurse in the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory, where Dr. Richard Goldweit had made an opening in my femoral artery and inserted a flexible tube (catheter) that allowed him to see into my heart.
On the back of his card, the doctor summed up my condition: "Strong heart, critical aortic stenosis, coronaries OK."
My heart murmur, which doctors have been monitoring for 10 to 15 years, had become worse with age. Symptoms, such as chest tightness and jaw pain, were occurring more frequently, with and without exertion.
In the past, a calcium buildup -- unrelated to diet -- had prevented my aortic valve from closing completely.
Now, it's hardly opening at all, and my 66-year-old heart has to work harder to push blood through the aorta, into the heart and onward to the rest of my body, explained Dr. Samuel Suede, an Englewood physician who sent me for the catheterization.
I was admitted to the hospital and taken to a private room on the 7th floor, where I could see the tops of hundreds of trees and many buildings, including a new elementary school and the high school's ornate tower, poking up through dark-green leaves.
For lunch, I asked for fish, but got tuna-fish salad with cooked fresh, cut-up asparagus, all of which was fed to me by my wife, because I was told not to lift my head or move my right leg for six hours.
On Tuesday, breakfast was corn flakes with non-fat milk, orange juice and decaf coffee. I didn't eat a whole-wheat roll on the tray. Lunch was "seasoned baked fish" -- probably farmed tilapia -- with a lemon wedge, bland white rice and more asparagus.
A small side salad had terrific red and green lettuce, and cucumber, but the tomato wedges were tasteless. Dessert was canned apricots.
No fish was available for dinner, so I had to settle for bland cottage cheese with more canned fruit and white grapes, plus another small salad and bland canned spinach. No-salt seasoning made the cottage cheese palatable, but far from exciting.
The best item on my tray Tuesday night were four or five wedges of oven-roasted, skin-on potatoes. Who smuggled those in?
Before I was discharged on Wednesday, I filled up on a breakfast of vanilla yogurt, oatmeal, a banana, orange juice, decaf coffee and a single, scrambled egg.
I'll be returning to the hospital on Friday at 6 a.m. for open-heart surgery to replace my faulty valve with a piece of cow heart, which I'm told will last for 10 to 15 years.
Four or five more days of food deprivation will follow until I'm allowed to go home.
I told Dr. Adam G. Arnofsky, one of the surgeons, that I don't eat meat, but he said he's heard all the jokes about the cow valve:
If Orthodox Jews protest, he tells them it's from a kosher cow. And, no, patients won't start mooing or crave grass after the operation, though I suggested they might not settle for anything less than grass-fed beef.
The hospital charges $11 a day to use the TV and telephone, but you can't pay extra for better food. As far as I know, I won't be able to order a celebratory meal after my operation.
Why don't hospitals follow the airlines' example and charge patients who want to eat well while getting better or even serve champagne, caviar, lobster, a gooey anchovy pizza or whatever "last meal" they want?
Why doesn't the Englewood hospital provide menus from some of the great fine-dining and ethnic restaurants in the small city and allow patients to order out?
The Korean supermarket a couple of miles away offers prepared food that would really hit the spot, including a vegetable-and-crab roll wrapped in rice and seaweed or translucent noodles made from yam flour.
The prepared Italian food at Jerry's on South Dean Street in Englewood is to die for. His Meals To Go -- restaurant-quality, multi-course fish, chicken or pork dinners -- are only $6.99.
At home Wednesday afternoon, I asked my wife to go to Costco Wholesale in Hackensack, a couple of miles away, and buy fresh wild salmon, organic spring mix and a few other items.
For dinner, I grilled Alaskan coho salmon fillets on the stove, with lemon juice, fresh herbs and Aleppo red pepper, and served them with a big salad. Terrific.
This morning, I prepared a deconstructed breakfast sandwich, substituting green-leaf lettuce from H Mart in Englewood for toasted bread, and piling on plump, heart-healthy canned sardines; marinated mozzarella balls; tomato; and olives and whole garlic cloves from Jerry's -- all in a light dressing of extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice and balsamic vinegar.
Now, that's a breakfast.
Tonight, I plan to have a couple of glasses of red wine with dinner, in an emphatic celebration of food and life.