by Beth Janes
Dr. Neil Spector, M.D. wastes no time pulling you into his harrowing medical journey in his memoir, Gone in a Heartbeat: A Physician’s Search for True Healing. Page one begins when, at 53 years old, he’s told he needs a heart transplant or he will be dead in a matter of days.
Following that gut-wrenching news, you learn that Dr. Spector’s life started like so many others who suddenly find themselves confronting a chronic illness or full-blown health crisis: Everything was perfect… until it wasn’t.
Dr. Spector had a happy childhood and caring parents: His mother was a psychologist and family therapist, and his father was a highly influential scientist. Their passion for people and science encouraged his own pursuits in medicine.
He went on to endure the grueling years of medical school, and later fellowships in hematology/medical oncology and bone marrow transplant at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School. As an oncologist and cancer therapy researcher, he didn’t simply treat patients, he cared for them deeply and on an emotional and spiritual level.
In 1991, Dr. Spector married the love of his life, and he was the epitome of health, often running 10 to 12 miles a day, six days a week. Just two years later, while embarking on an exciting career in a new city and ready to start a family, the unexplained heart symptoms began.
“Everything was perfect… until it wasn’t.”
Short episodes of rapid-fire heart beats came and went for months, but his doctors could find nothing wrong and chalked it up to stress. Then, one evening, he found himself experiencing every textbook symptom of a heart attack — while driving 70 miles per hour on the highway. He managed to make it safely to the closest emergency room, where an evaluation found his heart to be “normal,” and stress was named the culprit once again.
Thus began Dr. Spector’s downward spiral into a world of mysterious symptoms and progressively worsening health. His journey to find the underlying cause was long and frustrating, and even when he finally got a diagnosis that made sense — Lyme disease — the news was only a brief pit stop on his road to healing. His ordeal immediately roared on with more twists and turns, setbacks and roadblocks, as he dealt with the life-threatening effects of Lyme on his heart and ultimately had to undergo a heart transplant.
Dr. Spector tells a riveting story, plus offers thoughtful reflection and commentary on his time growing up, attending medical school, and treating patients, as well as his personal life and spiritual evolution throughout his health ordeal. The book reveals much about how and why he developed a unique, nuanced, and holistic approach to medicine and healthcare, and how it served him as a patient.
All of that makes Gone in a Heartbeat hard to put down, as does the way Spector writes — eloquently and with ample foreshadowing and backstory, teasers and cliffhangers. Expect to tear up, if not fully break down at certain parts both beautiful and excruciating.
“Even when he finally got a diagnosis that made sense — Lyme disease — the news was only a brief pit stop on his road to healing.”
But even more than a compelling read, Dr. Spector’s book is insightful. He shares valuable lessons throughout that come from a place of first-hand knowing and authentic desire to pave an easier path for others. At various points, the book feels like both a pep talk and spiritual guide for those dealing with chronic and serious medical conditions.
But the takeaways are useful no matter where you are on your own wellness journey — be it dealing with mysterious or textbook symptoms, a chronic illness or acute condition, or all or none of the above. The main message, after all, is right there in the title: Health and life are fragile, and can be gone in an instant.
Given that, take these five wise lessons from the book to heart:
1. No one knows your body better than you do.
Even as various doctors — including one of the top cardiologists in the country — dismissed Dr. Spector’s early symptoms as stress, he knew in his gut there was something else responsible for his spiraling health. And there was: Lyme.
Dr. Spector’s book includes multiple other real-life anecdotes that deal with following gut instincts. The lesson in all of them is this: Listen carefully to your gut; do something; be tenacious. If you feel uneasy, especially about your health, keep talking about your symptoms or whatever you suspect is going on. Do what you need to do to answer that voice.
As Dr. Spector writes, “your gut instinct…[is] akin to your soul communicating with you.” Don’t turn your back on it.
2. Choose healthcare providers carefully.
Dr. Spector writes, “the worst mistake a patient can ever make is to concede the power over his or her body to a stranger. That is essentially what physicians are — strangers to your body.” With this, he’s not saying you shouldn’t listen and sometimes defer to those who care for you, but more than anything, make sure they listen to you. Spector’s mentor taught him that providers should be detectives, and as such, they need to keep asking questions until they solve your mystery.
Unfortunately, Spector saw firsthand how providers are moving away from that approach, and are instead relying more and more on lab tests for answers. For example, despite voicing his instincts, presenting results of his own research, and his credentials as a physician and scientist, Dr. Spector was still largely discounted by the medical community at multiple points in his journey.
So he warns readers throughout about physician red flags and who to avoid:
- Those who think they know everything about medicine, a certain topic or condition
- Those who say “that never happens” in response to your symptoms
- Those who think current guidelines on anything should be set in stone
- Those who look more to lab results for answers than the patient sitting in front of him or her.
The best doctors, on the other hand, are those who, when faced with a quandary, can say, “I don’t know, but I will do what it takes to find out,” Spector writes.
3. Don’t let your disease define you.
As an oncologist, Dr. Spector had seen many patients lose themselves in their conditions. The diagnosis became the lens they saw themselves through and what they identified with most, rather than maintaining the traits that made them who they really were — a great friend or accomplished writer, for example.
As his own condition worsened and he came to terms with the idea that he literally could die at any moment, Dr. Spector didn’t want that to be the thing that defined him. Instead, he told himself that anyone can die suddenly, and just because his risk was higher, he didn’t want fear to cloud his life — he didn’t want to die before he was actually dead.
He writes: “Did I want to look back on my life and only remember fear and negativity? What a miserable existence that would be. I had wasted too much of my life already. I could not continue to allow my life to be dictated by Lyme disease, heart block, or the fear of arrhythmia.”
So, Dr. Spector lived as normal a life as possible while still trying to be cautious. It came at a cost, of course; he had multiple scary heart episodes, including one while in a bounce house with his young daughter. Yet he didn’t let fear or negativity stop him from living or appreciating the love and other good things in his life. He continued to see patients and work, and even developed a life-saving breast cancer drug.
4. Take control where you can.
Dr. Spector notes that although he wanted to live free from fear, he was still hampered by the question, “Why me?” His spirituality gave him comfort, and, realizing there wasn’t a good answer, he remembered something his grandmother would say in response to the “why me” question: “Why not you?”
So he began focusing more on what he could do to help himself. It helped Dr. Spector regain the sense of control over his life that his condition had taken from him. He writes that dealing with his limitations, the medicines, the tests, the guidelines around his pacemaker/defibrillator — everything — allowed him to fully understand what patients had told him in the past: That the worst part of a serious illness isn’t the illness, but losing control over your life.
Dr. Spector read everything he could about cardiac complications of Lyme disease, heart failure, and medication-free ways to help his condition such as meditation, avoiding caffeine, and getting enough sleep. He met with a nutritionist and began taking supplements. He basically started following his own advice, writing, “I wanted to be an educated, not a passive, consumer (advice I gave to my own patients). We don’t think twice about gathering information before we buy a new car. Why should our own health be any different?”
5. Never underestimate the complexity or power of the body and mind.
As a physician, Dr. Spector recognized how much modern medicine still didn’t know about the human body. He marvels at the body’s resiliency, and also its utter uniqueness — that every person can respond so differently to the same illness and treatment. But it’s the power and mystery of the mind-body connection that really comes through.
Dr. Spector shares multiple stories of patients’ seeming ability to influence the course of their diseases and even their deaths. For instance, he writes of an elderly patient in relatively good health whose family dropped him off at the ER right before the holidays. Believing they just needed some respite, everyone—the man included—thought the family would return to pick him up. When they didn’t, the man withdrew, stopped eating, and soon passed away. He basically willed himself to die.
On the contrary, Dr. Spector wanted to will himself to live, “at least beyond what statistics indicate,” he writes. He used to tell his patients to make their own statistics, that if they survive, that’s a 100% survival rate for them. And that’s what he tried to do for himself. Sure, there were moments his hope wavered, and once he desperately wanted to give up. But along with all the medicines and choices made during his ordeal, Dr. Spector writes, “I knew there was also a reservoir of strength within — sometimes we might not even be aware of this strength.”
Dr. Spector shares various instances along his journey where he draws on this strength, when he rallies around his body, his heart, his cells, when he visualizes hope. And it works. He writes, “If people can talk to their houseplants and see results, why can’t the body receive the same benefit? I believe your body listens to messages you give it, both positive and negative.”
Gone in a Heartbeat is full of countless other thought-provoking takeaways, lessons, and moments that are both relatable and unbelievable. Dr. Spector points out that had he never contracted Lyme, he may never have made the choices that lead to him developing a new cancer drug and saving multiple lives. And it can also be said that he may never have written his book, which is likely to touch and help many, many more lives.