Wednesday, July 26, 2017
It was about ten years ago, in Paris. My eldest granddaughter and I were walking briskly through the Champ de Mars, the Eiffel Tower looming large to our left. But there was something wrong. I realized that I was short of breath, not feeling well at all, and that the episode of malaise was in fact only a more extreme version of several others I had experienced in recent days and could no longer plausibly deny. I told Sophia what was wrong. She is a very sensible, no-nonsense young woman. “That’s not good,” she said. “You better see a doctor.” Very soon after that, through the intermediation of her mother, a no-nonsense type on steroids, I found myself in a hospital consulting room in the presence of an important academic cardiologist. It was then that I learned that I had developed atrial fibrillation, an arrhythmia of the heart that is common among the elderly. The condition is not in and of itself intrinsically serious, but it increases the possibility of the formation of blood clots, which in turn can trigger strokes—very serious indeed. The preventive therapy there is the use of chemical blood thinners. Furthermore for some people, including me, the actual symptoms can seriously impact the quality of daily life.
My doctor, like so many other European specialists, had at some point spent time in Boston at “Mass General”—that is, the Massachusetts General Hospital, the largest and most famous of Harvard’s teaching hospitals. Though we can’t seem to get it together to have a good national health system, we still seem to be near the top of high-end boutique specialties. I don’t know how long he spent there, but it is possible that his English was better than my French. He certainly wanted to believe so. The initial results were, however, not encouraging. After absorbing the symptoms, he moved confidently to diagnosis. “I zink I know what is wrong with you,” he said. “Your heart is not working any more.” After that I switched to French, enabling blunders of a more amusing sort. One of his secretaries offered me some “Scotch,” assuring me that they had plenty in the office. I thought she was offering me a reinforcing drink. She was actually proffering transparent tape to seal up a rapidly expanding folder of papers.
Anyway, it was in this conversation that I first consciously registered the word ablation. I registered it in French, of course, and had no idea what it meant, although the exact same word is in common medical use in English. The human mind, when faced with the unfamiliar or the unknown does its best to transfer registers, and to cram the new thing into categories that are familiar or at least known. What was quite familiar to me was the oblation. I am after all an Anglican who has from time immemorial been encouraged, “Let us with gladness present the offerings and oblations of our life and labor to the Lord" --i.e., put something in the collection plate. My doctor told me that uhblation was one of the recognized therapies for atrial fibrillation, but one that he himself regarded as rather radical and to be avoided when possible. I was given to believe that, as with so much else in the opulence of French culture, it was a matter of local taste and custom. If I were in Bordeaux rather than Paris, he said, they probably would be uhblating me that very moment.
Words like ablation and oblation demonstrate the power of tiny Latin prefixes. The Latin verb ferre (meaning bear, carry, or bring, among other things) is a common but troublesome one with an oddball perfect participle, latus, which shows up in the –lation part of the two words. But an oblation is something offered or brought to, whereas an ablation is something removed, erased, or taken away from. You can see, perhaps, why I was initially somewhat confused by my French medical advice. But I have had ample time to be brought up to speed during the past decade, and especially during the past two days, when I was in the New York University hospital having a cardiac ablation. When it comes to hearts I am forced to believe that sometimes less can be more. In any event that is why this week’s post is so self-reflexive, and a few hours tardy.