THE BLOG

R.I.P. James Gandolfini: What Can We Learn?

06/25/2013 11:33 am ET | Updated Aug 25, 2013

When I was living in Chicago, missing the brash Jersey attitudes and Italian delicatessens of my youth, The Sopranos provided me with a 60-minute journey back home every week. Whoever watched with us, as we hung on every word, would also be forced to endure my vocal alerts for every North Jersey sighting embedded in a TV drama that seemed so real. The Lincoln Tunnel exit, Route 3, Bloomfield Avenue, lots of cured meats and wet muzz -- things that were unique to my home, Jersey.

The viewing of The Sopranos began to take on an event-like atmosphere, preceded by numerous pots on the stove, sausages and meatballs, gravy simmering, wine pouring, friends talking and congregating -- until, that is, the intro began with its heavy baseline and Tony, arm out the window, cigar in hand, making all of us feel lucky to know him and to not be on his bad side. The good bad guy.

The controversial fade-to-black finale without closure now takes on such a more profound tone, since we know what happens in real life. James Gandolfini's passing is sad for so many reasons -- the term "untimely" hardly does it justice. The death of any young person -- particularly from potentially-preventable causes -- is a tragedy. And events like this, because of their notoriety and widespread media coverage, have the opportunity to spur change.

Gandolfini was such a young man at 51, leaving two young children and a wife behind, aborting a proud and accomplished acting career, and for those of us who hail from his home state of New Jersey, the former Rutgers grad's death cements his image in our minds as a small screen icon. Jersey has had so many famous residents (don't make me name them, 'cause I can) but none as "Jersey" as Gandolfini.

The fact that he was so famous/beloved and so young and didn't die of what so many young, famous people die of (addiction) makes the story so acutely interesting -- not just in a Page 6 way, but more from a "What can I do to prevent that?" way. The death of any young person is tragic and often engenders questions of how and why -- yet the answers sometimes leaves us unsatisfied.

Objectively, Gandolfini was not the picture of health. He was likely technically obese and had a well-documented penchant for food and cigars, to the point that his last meal has been chronicled in every newspaper that reported his death, as if it had a direct relation to his sudden cardiac death. Which it very likely did not. Would they have done that for a thinner man?

The fact is that out-of-hospital cardiac arrest occurs more than 380,000 times every year in the United States alone, with the vast majority occurring inside the home. A hefty 40 percent of those occur in patients younger than 65. Many of those happen in people with no known heart disease. This is an incredibly strong argument for why ALL people should learn hands-only CPR -- an unbelievably simple skill that can literally make the difference between saving a life or watching someone die. This link will teach you all you need to know.

Less than one-third of all cardiac arrest victims actually receive CPR -- a shame when you can literally triple the likelihood of saving someone's life just by pushing on their chest to the tune of "Staying Alive."

That said, how can you prevent a tragedy like this from happening to you or a family member? Knowing the obvious warning signs is a good start: So, if you have chest discomfort that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and recurs (particularly with exertional activity), that's concerning and needs to be worked up by a doctor. Alternatively, some people may also develop left arm pain, jaw pain, nausea and/or diaphoresis (sweating) -- equally concerning signs that merit a visit to your doc. Women and diabetics tend to present with somewhat atypical signs, e.g., abdominal pain, back pain, shortness of breath. The take home message: If you are concerned with symptoms in or around your chest area and you have one or more of the risk factors described below: GO TO YOUR DOCTOR.

Once the event has occurred, damage has been done, so the real question is: Who is at highest risk for having a cardiac arrest or heart attack at a young age? Contrary to popular opinion, early onset coronary disease has never been conclusively linked to a stressful job or life. In fact, it is more likely people's coping mechanisms (smoking, drinking, drugging, eating), triggered by their stress, that cause their cardiac events. Actual statistically proven risk factors for coronary artery disease include:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Elevated cholesterol and/or triglycerides
  • Family history in first-degree relatives (father, mother, bro, sis) of CAD before 55 in males and 65 in females.
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity

The above risk factors are vetted by numerous studies, but I will add one more that I feel likely contributes to a vast number of these cardiac embarrassments: lack of medical attention. Younger men in particular often veer away from medical attention despite the proverbial writing on the wall. They also tend to ignore symptoms that may herald an impending disaster. The fear of discovering something trumping the much less realistic seeming fear -- that one may die from doing nothing. So, if you are one of these men (or women) -- or live with one of them -- do not ignore your symptoms. Go see a doctor.

Cases like Gandolfini's and Tim Russert's death not too long ago remind us that coronary disease and its sequelae can be devastating and without obvious preceding symptoms. In the interventional cardiology community we see these events fairly frequently, and most of them do not receive much fanfare. With the advent of so many new technologies and vastly improved treatment of heart attacks, we still are unable to save everyone. The key to better outcomes is better prevention.

For more by Jordan Safirstein, MD, click here.

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