Hillary’s Health and my Heart Attack

When a friend called and told me that Hillary Clinton nearly collapsed after having to leave a September 11 memorial service early, I braced myself for the wave of misogyny that would follow. And then it came crashing down, just as expected. The media pounced; Hillary’s health was now a major issue. Tom Brokaw announced that she should see a neurologist. My first thought? She got overheated. And: leave her alone.

When she revealed that she had been diagnosed with pneumonia a few days prior, the narrative shifted again, this time to how her refusal to reveal that diagnosis was further evidence of the fact that she’s not honest. There was immediate speculation that maybe she has pneumonia, or maybe she’s hiding something worse since, you know, she lies about everything.

You know the reason why Hillary didn’t tell the world that she had pneumonia? She says that she really didn’t think that pneumonia was that big of a deal. And you know why? Because women are really good at convincing themselves and everyone around them that they are totally fine when they totally aren’t. And you know why that’s the case? Strap in and I’ll tell you.


Women work when they are sick because they have to. They have to take care of their families, they have to provide for their children, and if they value their jobs, they can never — under any circumstances — appear weak. Illness in a woman who works is an indication that she can’t handle her job, that she’s too frail, too constitutionally incapable. The speculation and scrutiny to which working women are subjected when they are sick, when they do actually have to miss work, is disproportionate to what men have to endure when they succumb to illness. And women know this.

Remember when Regan had colon cancer? How about when Bush the first threw up on Japanese Prime Minister Miyazawa Kiichi?

Presidential hopefuls Bob Dole, John Kerry, and John McCain all had cancer prior to their bids for office. And let’s not ever forget that Dick Cheney had a letter of resignation ready to give to W. because he thought his heart was a goner and that he could die at pretty much any moment. Bill Clinton? Good lord, already. The man was effectively trying to eat himself to death while he was in office. Donald Trump has produced an absurd supposed doctor’s letter attesting to his fitness for office.

And Hillary has pneumonia, a ailment that can be treated with antibiotics, and it’s a national crisis, a clear testament to why a woman can’t serve as commander and chief. And it hits way too close to home for me.

In October of 2013, when I was 43-years-old, I had a massive heart attack that nearly killed me. Before I go further with the details, let me tell you a few things about myself. I have been a vegan for 15 years and a vegetarian for 20 years prior; I don’t smoke, and I am a long distance runner. My cholesterol is great, and I have no risk factors. I am an English professor, and at the time of the heart attack, I was working in a administrative capacity as the Department Head of the largest academic department at the university where I work. It was a stressful gig to say the least, and it was a job that I had wanted to do for a single three-year term. I was in my second semester of that term at the time of the attack.

I was at work when I had the symptoms, the classic ones, the crushing chest pain, pain in my arms and jaw, nausea, sweating. Of course I tried to talk myself out of what was happening because I was totally convinced that there was no way that I was having a heart attack. I. Tried. To. Walk. It. Off. No biggie. Probably just a pulled muscle or something.

And then I ended up on a helicopter ride to the nearest cardiac hospital, which was 50 miles away.

Here’s MAMA, the Mountain Area Medical Airlift.

The next day, my cardiologist told me just how bad it had been, how very close I came to dying, how difficult the surgery had been. How touch and go. And he also told me that the only reason that I survived that widow maker — so named because it lays men to waste — was because I was so strong and so healthy. He told me not to return to work that semester.

I was back in my office a week later. I didn’t even have to cancel a single class because I was only teaching a graduate course that met once per week.

No big deal. Just par for the course. It’s what women do — and I was super conscious of that. I was back because not to go back would have meant the end of my ability to do any further administrative work at my university. I would have been deemed too weak, too frail, and too unfit for such work. Should I have gone back? Absolutely not. But I went back anyway, and I finished out my term, and, as I had always planned, I returned to being faculty.

But despite the sheer fortitude that should have been made evident by that action, I was still told by a no doubt well-meaning male colleague that I shouldn’t plan to pursue further administrative positions because another term in the one I’d just completed would probably kill me. Woah, I thought, and then I explained that (as he already knew) that my heart attack turned out to be the result of a genetic predisposition that lead to a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), a condition that affects otherwise super healthy women, that causes a SPONTANEOUS — as in not-related-to-my-job — tear in the lining of an artery, which leads to blood not being able to pass through, which leads to a clot, which leads, very often, to death. Not for me, though, I reminded him: I was back to work in a week.

Bow down to the badass that is me, already.

Men’s health issues are battle scars, evidence of developed character, of strength and survival. Women’s are evidence of frailty, even when we survive them. Even when most men wouldn’t be able to survive them.

I should be clear and note — and I’m stealing this from a friend on Facebook — that if Hillary’s aids Weekend at Bernie-ed her body around for the rest of the election cycle, I’d happily vote for her corpse over the vileness that is Donald Trump. But my bet is that she’ll be fine, actually better than fine (did you notice that she had pneumonia and was still out there working 16 hour days? That’s not weak; that actually superhuman), no matter what the press might have us believe.

I survived a heart attack because I am strong and, probably, because I’m a woman. Hillary continues to survive hit after hit after hit for the same reasons. I hope she gets better soon, and that at some point, we might see fit to let women actually be sick without also deciding that they aren’t fit to lead.

Laura Wright is the founder of the field of Vegan Studies. She is Professor of English at Western Carolina University.