Baseball commissioner warned before fatal heart attack?
April 20, 2006 6:44 AM   Subscribe

Did a doctor see Bart Giamatti on television and warn him he was about to have a heart attack?

A. Bartlett Giamatti, baseball commissioner, Yale president, Pete Rose antagonist, Paul's dad, died of a heart attack in 1989.

Someone told me the following apocryphal-sounding, or at least embellished-sounding, anecdote: The day before Giamatti's death, he appeared in a television interview. A physician who happened to be watching could tell, "from the way he was holding his cigarette," that he was in the early stages of cardiac arrest. He tried to contact Giamatti, but either couldn't get in touch with him, or the warning wasn't heeded.

Is this true, or partly true? Here's what I've been able to find:

This abstract of a CBS News segment seems to indicate that a Sloan Kettering doctor had written a letter offering to help Giamatti quit smoking. Could this be the origin of the more dramatic story?

This version of the story: A doctor saw him on TV, smoking a cigar, and from his swollen fingers suggested he had heart problems. The doctor warned Giamatti to give up cigars and seek treatment, which he did, but he died of a heart attack shortly thereafter.

That's all I've got. Has anyone heard any version of this?
posted by staggernation to Society & Culture (6 answers total)
I haven't heard that, but ...

I read an interview with the actor David Suchet, who plays Hercule Poirot on TV in the UK. A few years ago he was contacted by an iridologist who had seen one of the shows in which there had been a closeup of his eye.

She noticed something in his eye which gave her cause for concern. She managed to get in touch with David Suchet and asked him to get it checked out. He did, and it turned out her over-the-TV diagnosis was spot-on. The problem she identified was not a problem with his eye, but some other health problem. The nature of iridology is that a person's overall health and wellbeing is reflected in the iris.

I've googled and can't find anything on this, but it stuck in my mind as being one of those weird tales.
posted by essexjan at 6:52 AM on April 20, 2006

I've never heard either of those stories. However, I find it extremely unlikely that one could diagnose something from the way a person holds a cigarette. The last version you post is more plausible; swollen fingers can indeed indicate a heart problem. I don't see any reason why this couldn't have happened. Note that this version eliminates most of the warning signs of an urban legend (eg doctor warns him and then he dies the very! next! day!).

As to the David Suchet story... well, iridology is bunk and has no basis in actual medicine so I suspect it to be either misremembered or just an interesting story with little basis to it.
posted by Justinian at 7:33 AM on April 20, 2006

No Stranger to Tears: A Surgeon's Story. - book reviews:
On the strength of TV pictures alone, Dr. Cahan has forwarded health warnings to such diverse figures as Yuri Andropov, Jimmy Carter, and Bart Giamatti (this last was a mistake-Cahan mistook someone else's hands for the late baseball commissioner's on the screen). And in real life, woe betide the dinner partner who carelessly lights up in his presence: Dr. Cahan's passions are on call at all hours of the day, and his sermons on tobacco are ripsnorters.
If he's always tossing out warnings like this but only the subsequent crises make the news, to some people he's going to look prescient.

(By the way: Iridology Is Nonsense)
posted by pracowity at 7:42 AM on April 20, 2006

Yes, pracowity has it -- it turned out that the doctor was looking at the wrong set of hands, not Giamatti's, so the whole thing became kind of meaningless. I remember he went on and on about "clubbing" in the fingers.
posted by JanetLand at 7:56 AM on April 20, 2006

This device was used in an episode of House last season. The doc was in court and snowed the judge by telling him about the clubbing on his fingers and warning him to get a checkup. It turned out to be a ploy. Not helpful, sorry, but it's clearly a prevalent meme.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:08 AM on April 20, 2006

The clubbed fingers thing refers to the fact that if your blood is not well oxygenated, the fingernails tend to widen at the ends, resulting in a diagnostic clue that only works once. It's found often in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or congestive heart failure.
< / minor clarification
posted by unrepentanthippie at 5:37 AM on April 21, 2006

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