His ponytail retired several years ago, about the time the hair on top of his head took a permanent leave of absence, and today, on his 65th birthday, Dr. Edward Matthews is marking the occasion by giving himself a present you can’t wrap in pretty paper. Living up to a vow he made after his mother’s death many years ago, the cardiologist is turning off his treadmill and ending a 27-year career in medicine.
“My mother worked three jobs all her life to raise six kids, and after she passed away I promised myself that I wasn’t going to work until I died. So today, I’m going to celebrate Christmas, New Year’s and my birthday all in one,” said Matthews, a Phys-Ed major who discovered an exciting career looking into people’s hearts.
He was a college football player at Hampton University in Virginia when he first thought about going into medicine. He did his residency at William Beaumont Army Medical Center. Med students rotated from field to field during their internship and when he was working in cardiology, something clicked.
“I came home every night excited — and I still do,” he said.
After graduating from college in 1974, he spent nine years in the Army. They wouldn’t let him grow a mustache or a beard so when became a civilian, he replaced his uniform with a ponytail. He was wearing one when I first met him in the opening months of 2006.
Dr. Mike Sims was alarmed about my rising cholesterol and on my on I had discovered a shortness of breath when I climbed even the slightest hill. Sims asked me how long it had been since I had a stress test. A couple of years, I said.
“Try 10 years,” he said.
I didn’t have a cardiologist at the time so Sims referred me to Dr. Matthews for a walk on the wild side. His treadmill was on the second floor of a two-story building. I took the elevator, not the stairs. That should have told me something.
Preliminaries out of the way, I went into a room for the stress test. There I met my cardiologist for the very first time. He was black and there was that ponytail. I was nervous and his sharp sense of humor put me at ease.
As they hooked me up to electrodes, he told me what he wanted me to do. He needed me to stay on the treadmill for as long as I could. So he could get a proper reading. He said I would say when to quit — not him. Then we were off.
It started slowly. This wasn’t bad at all, I thought. Then he raised the ante, simulating a walk up an incline. I struggled. My legs were willing but my chest was heaving. He begged me for a few more minutes which I tried to give him. My breathing was in labor when Matthews told me he was slowing down the treadmill. Only 3 minutes and 20 seconds had passed. I didn’t have a medical degree but I knew I had failed the test.
“This isn’t good, is it?” I said.
Matthews said nothing.
Next time I saw him he talked about shadows on my heart. He said the stress test was inconclusive. He said I needed to have a cardiac catheterization. He said he would insert a small tube in my arm or leg and it would pass through my heart giving him a look at my arteries and the chambers of my heart. It wasn’t surgery, he said, but when somebody is pushing something into my heart it is full-scale invasion.
It was a Friday when they wheeled me into the cath lab at St. Francis. Matthews wasn’t there. So he gets me up with the roosters and he doesn’t stroll in until showtime. I made a note to talk to him about that, which I did.
A technician tied my arms at my side and pumped a local anesthetic into my veins. He said I would probably start itching. “I’ll scratch for you — as long as it’s above the waist,” he said. I hoped his medical skills were better than his jokes.
Next thing I knew, it was over. I heard Matthews’ voice somewhere in the distance. He asked someone if Dr. Burdette was in the building and the answer was that he was in surgery. I knew Fred Burdette and I knew what that probably meant.
“Tell him he needs to see this patient today,” Matthews said.
When he realized I was awake he told me there were blockages but that angioplasty wasn’t possible in the left main quadrant of the heart. He mentioned Burdette’s name again. “You mean Fred?” I asked.
I knew him and I knew that he operated on people’s hearts. I thought they were going to wheel me into the OR right then. Matthews reassured me, and said the surgeon would visit me late that afternoon. They wheeled me into recovery and the fears began to mount. So did the fears. I had a million questions. Matthews must have known for soon he was at my side.
Knowing I was in a stupor he repeated everything he had said a few minutes before. Then he offered advice that went beyond the practice of medicine or the role of a cardiologist. His words would make the upcoming week much more comfortable.
“Consider the next seven days a gift,” Matthews said. “If you’re like most of us there are things you have left undone. So before you go into the hospital you have time to get them done.”
What a gift he gave me. I remembered every word.
The double-bypass surgery was a success. Sims took time off from his family practice and dressed out in scrubs. Only afterward would I learn that the blockages Matthews identified were not easy to locate. They were commonly known as “Widowmakers.” But thanks to my Dream Team, I survived.
Eleven years later, I still survive.
I appreciate Sims, Matthews and Burdette for their God-given gifts. They saved my life. As much as anything, I appreciate the unexpected laughter that I had a chance to share with Matthews and that signature ponytail.
When I complained that my shoulder blade ached, he explained my pain. “That’s because of the way they sprawled you out when they filleted you.” I scolded him for his jokes and told him I had decided I wouldn’t want a heart doctor without an ego.
“If you think I’m bad now,” he said, “you should have seen me 15 years ago.”
On the eve of his retirement, Dr. Edward Matthews has mellowed. These days, he talks about how he has spent more time with his patients than he has with his family and how that is something he intends to rectify in retirement.
On behalf of my fellow patients, I thanked him for being there.
On his way out the door, Matthews is packing boxes and telling people goodbye. Looking back on his brilliant career, he sees the changes and advancements that have occurred in his chosen profession. “Things we do today weren’t even invented 30 years ago,” he said. “That made every day exciting — and it still is.”
One thing hasn’t changed.
“You can still help people — but I know it’s time.”