For a Recovering Arthur Ashe, His Heart Attack May Not Be a Net Loss
On July 31, clutching his chest in pain, the former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion walked into the emergency room of New York Hospital. "They didn't even make me fill out the insurance forms," he recalls. "They put me on intravenous, shoved an oxygen tube up my nose, shot me with morphine to kill the pain and gave me nitroglycerin pills to help the heartbeat. The whole time I was staring at the ceiling, wondering what the hell was going on." As he later learned, it was a myocardial infarction at the rear of the heart—rare in any case, and all but unheard-of in a young athlete who is the seventh-ranked tennis player in the world. Now, as Ashe recuperates at home and ponders whether he will ever play on the tour again, he views his illness with almost clinical fascination.
"What I didn't know," says Ashe, "is that a heart attack is a process—it usually occurs over a 12-to 36-hour period." He ignored the first danger signals when they struck at 11:30 the night of July 30. Exhausted after returning from Germany with his wife, Jeanne, Ashe was tucking himself under the covers when he felt a sharp pain in the middle of his chest. "It was so bad," he says, "that I had to get out of bed and walk around the room." Since the pain disappeared two minutes later, Ashe didn't bother calling Jeanne from downstairs. Twice more within the hour the alarm sounded inside his chest. "Each time it went away," he recalls, "and I slept like a baby."
The pain returned the next afternoon after Ashe played a 50-minute exhibition match, then left again. An hour later it was back with frightful intensity; Ashe was finally beginning to get the message. "The pain was so horrible that it blocked out everything else. I had to get rid of it. I was scared now, and the words 'heart attack' did cross my mind," he says, "but only for a second."
Even the doctors thought it unlikely. Presented with a very abnormal electrocardiogram, they were unsure whether the deviations were due to an attack or to Ashe's enlarged and slowly beating heart—a condition often found in athletes. They ordered a variety of tests. "We could't afford to guess with someone who makes his living by overworking his heart," explains Dr. Stephen Scheidt, Ashe's cardiologist.
There will be no overworking that heart again for a while: Ashe has strict orders to stay off the courts at least until November. "Everybody's life has misfortune once in a while," he says with his trademark stoicism. "My mother died when I was 6 months old. Maybe that's why I can take it better than some people. I don't really expect much out of life." Still, he's apprehensive. "The first thing most people ask the doctor after a heart attack is, 'When can I have sex?' " laughs Ashe. "I asked, 'When can I play again?' " (Actually, he was told that "sex with someone you are close to is no problem.")
After a layoff of only a month—and sitting out this year's Open—Ashe is restless: "I miss playing, I really do." But he is mindful that he may have inherited a tendency for heart failure and that his 60-year-old father has survived two attacks by strict observance of doctors' orders. "I've lived roughly half my life now," Arthur reflects. "I wouldn't want to be remembered only as a tennis player." While convalescing, he keeps busy writing newspaper and magazine articles on tennis and studying French. He must take nitroglycerin pills three times a day and avoid running and lifting, but his diet is unrestricted. "There's a hell of a lot I can do," he says. "I am a determined person. I expect to live a long time." Advantage—still Ashe.