Thursday afternoon. Rush hour. Thom Hendrickson felt the first twinge of pain as he turned his Honda off the Beltway onto Chain Bridge Road in Northern Virginia.

It wasn’t much of a twinge, just the quick pain that made him wince.

Only this time the pain didn’t fade away.

“It came back, harder, then it hit me full in the chest, like I’d been kicked by a horse. Goddamn it hurt.”

Hendrickson lost control of the car, which plunged off the exit ramp and down the bank. A passerby who pulled over found Hendrickson laying in the seat in a fetal position. He reached into Hendrickson’s car, used the cell phone to call 911, then pulled the moaning man from the car and administered CPR until the rescue squad arrived.

Hendrickson doesn’t remember much of what followed. Just a blur, edged in a white glaze. And the pain.

“I couldn’t breathe. It hurt like a sonofabitch.”

At age 46, Thom Hendrickson became a statistic, just another overworked, overweight, out-of-shape man suffering a heart attack.

Some 19 hours later, Hendrickson was awake, sort of, and aware of his surroundings, more or less.

“My wife was there. I had needles in my arms and monitors on my chest and the ugliest nurse I’ve ever seen standing over me. That’s when I knew I was still alive. They wouldn’t ever let anybody that ugly into heaven.”

Hendrickson leans back in his chair and laughs about that day, seven years ago, when his chest tied into a knot and his lifestyle almost killed him.

“I had all the warning signs: Too much stress, too many cigarettes, too much booze, too much fatty food and too little exercise. I couldn’t walk up a short flight of stairs without running out of breath. It’s a wonder it didn’t happen sooner.”

Three days after the heart attack, Hendrickson’s doctor laid down the law: quit smoking, cut back on the alcohol and the stress, eat better and get his ass into shape.

“I sure didn’t want to ever feel those chest pains again, so I promised to clean up my act.”

He went on a diet, gave up cigarettes, cut back on the booze and joined a health club. Over the next six months, Hendrickson dropped 31 pounds. He was getting into shape. Then, after working out at the club one afternoon, the chest pains started again.

“I panicked. Oh, Christ, not another heart attack. Another ambulance, another emergency room.

Two days later, another lecture.

“You’ve done most of the things you should,” Hendrickson’s doctor said, “but you didn’t cut back on the one thing that is still killing you.”

“What’s that?” Hendrickson was confused.

“The stress. You still have the stress.”

“Stress is part of the job.”

“Then get rid of the job.”

“Are you out of your mind? How the hell do you suggest I make a living.”

“The key word is living. If you keep worrying about making a living, the one thing you won’t be is living.”

“Am I hearing this right? If I want to live, I have to give up my life?”

“No, Thom, I’m telling you that if you want to live, you have to take control of your life. Right now, your life is controlling you that that life is killing you.”

Thom Hendrickson left the hospital three days later. That weekend, he and his wife went away to their vacation home in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. They took long walks during the day and talked long hours into the night.

On Monday, Hendrickson called a meeting at his law firm where he was senior partner.

And he quit.

“I cashed in my partnership.”

They sold their home in McLean, Virginia, the vacation home in Pennsyvlania, the time shares in the Virgin Islands and in Aspen. He sent his $300 a year Platinum Card back to American Express.

Then they took all the money they had from the sales and bought a 150-acre farm outside of Marion, Virginia, six hours away from Washington, in the Shenandoah Mountains. They raise some sheep and a few hogs. He writes a little. They live simply.

Last year, they made enough of a profit to junk their 16-year-old pickup and buy a newer, five-year-old truck. The tractor needs a new engine and they hope to make enough to rebuild it next year.

“We took a few days off last year and went down to the Great Smokey Mountains. Spent the weekend in Gatlinburg.”

Hendrickson went to the doctor last week for his annual physical.

“Passed with flying colors. No angina, no chest pains. Aced the stress test.”

His old law firm also called last week. They had a case coming up in court in Roanoke, not too far away from Marion. Could he come up and help out?

“I thought about it, for about 15 seconds, and then told them thanks, but no thanks. Seven years ago, I had a living. Now I have a life. I’ll keep it that way if you don’t mind.”

“In fact, I’ll keep it that way even if you do mind.”

–Doug Thompson
Washington, DC