The lesson of a lifetime -- learned the hard way

May 07, 2000|By Gregory Kane

THANK YOU, thank you, thank you.

I thank all of you who called and sent cards expressing condolences, sympathy and get-well wishes during my recent illness. While I probably shouldn't single out any particular well-wishers, two do merit mentioning.

Reginald Curbeam and Gary Washington, who are serving life terms at Jessup, sent get-well cards. Their gesture was significant because these two guys have some serious problems of their own, which you may read about in the future.

Some of you wondered what my illness was, while others said that was my business. But having shared with you the circumstances surrounding the deaths of three siblings, I see nothing wrong with discussing my illness. It might be instructive, and may even help someone.

This story starts in December, Christmas weekend, to be precise. I caught what I thought was a routine flu virus, but I wondered why I had no fever, body aches or chills. The virus lasted about a week, but a cough lingered -- for weeks.

My wife urged me to see my doctor. So did several co-workers, including former Sun editor John Carroll, who's since moved to warmer environs as editor of the Los Angeles Times. But Macho Man Greg Kane wouldn't listen. If I couldn't tough out a measly cough, I just wasn't much of a man.

Main lesson learned: When spouse and friends tell you to see a doctor, see a doctor.

It was in late January that I went to a community forum at Polytechnic Institute regarding police methods. While outside, I talked to one guy for about five minutes, then to the commander of the Central District for about 10 minutes. As I walked to my car, a violent coughing spell hit me. Gasping for air, I made it to my car, where I had to wait at least five minutes before I was in condition to drive. A short time later, my sister also urged me to see my doctor after noticing I was short of breath after walking up a lousy flight of stairs.

My doctor, who prefers to remain anonymous but is hailed by other physicians as the best in the area, put me on an inhalant. (She heaved a sigh of frustration when I asked her, with a straight face, "You mean a cough isn't supposed to last four weeks?")

I was sailing along pretty smoothly there -- the cough was less frequent and, I thought, almost gone -- when another virus hit me in late February. In early March, I noticed the difficulty breathing became more pronounced. On March 10, a pulmonary specialist gave me a preliminary diagnosis of pneumonia, but cautioned that he wanted a couple of tests done first.

A CT scan a few days later showed I had fluid in the lungs. As dumb luck would have it, I wasn't scheduled for an echocardiogram until April 11. It showed I have congestive heart failure. I spent three days in Sinai Hospital.

It's not as bad as it sounds. My main hurdle, other than regaining my strength (weeks of poor breathing, not sleeping and not eating led to a 35-pound weight loss), was the news doctors gave me that I had to give up salt.

"I have to give up what?" I asked.

Those of you who've had to give up salt know the difficulty. Those of you who haven't don't know how lucky you are.

Within days after being released from the hospital, I learned the salt industry folks virtually own the processed-food business. When I reached for the canned soup that had half the sodium of regular soup, I found that "half" usually meant about 500 milligrams. Regular soups had about 900 milligrams, some topped 1,000. Canned vegetables were out. I soon found the same applied to frozen vegetables.

The worst offenders were the low-fat dishes, some of which were higher in sodium than the regular fat dishes.

"What they'll do," my doctor said of these sneaks, "is increase the sugar and salt content of low-fat foods to add taste."

Well, a "fat" lot of good that does those of us on low-fat and low-sodium diets. Is there any food the salt merchants won't add extra sodium to? A can of Coca-Cola, I learned, has 50 milligrams of sodium. Manufacturers of Diet Pepsi add 25 milligrams to a 20-ounce bottle, but why do soft drinks need extra sodium at all?

"In two months, the processed food will taste salty to you," my doctor promised. My taste buds will have to adjust. Those two months can't pass too soon.

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