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How Smoking Saved My Life

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As a smoking journo from the 20th century who found impossible to write without a cigarette, I arranged for regular chest X-rays for early warning signs of lung cancer. Other than a bit of a smoker’s wheeze, I was in pretty good shape, I thought: reptile-level blood pressure, no back problems, no hip or knee replacements like so many of my friends who jogged and exercised regularly.

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Grant Wahl died from a burst aneurysm at age 48

Then came the x-ray that changed my life. A hazy spot showed up at the bottom of the picture frame, between my lower lungs. My doctor was worried: it looked like an aneurysm.

A CT scan confirmed it: an abdominal aortic aneurysm, a blister-like thing on the main artery leading from my heart, butting up against my renal arteries. I was not in danger of it exploding anytime soon, the doctors told me, but you never know. The best guess was 4 to 6 years.

“The upside,“ my doctor cracked, “is that you’ll never see it coming and you’ll never be in pain. You’ll be dead before your head hits the table.”

“Well, good—I always wanted to go out head down on the keyboard,“ I cracked back.

But now that I knew about it, I felt like I was walking around with a hand grenade in my chest.

In late July I had a very long and complicated surgery—they found another aneurysm down by my leg while they were in there— followed by two months in a rehab hospital. Not fun. But I’m alive.

As you may have heard by now, the much beloved soccer journalist Grant Wahl died from a burst aneurysm. He didn’t see it coming. And he didn’t feel a thing from the time it burst until a few seconds later when he went head down at the media table at Lusail stadium in Qatar. He was 48.

“It’s just one of these things that had been likely brewing for years, and for whatever reason it happened at this point in time,” his widow, Dr. Celine Gounder, said today on “CBS Mornings.”

So there’s a lesson from my own little story. If you’re over 40 and headed for a check up, ask the docs to take a look for aneurisms. Especially if you’ve ever smoked. They say smoking is the leading cause of aneurysms (and so much else, of course). My holiday wish to you? No (bad) surprises. Carry on.

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