John Burns' Heart Arrythmia
Yesterday, I was chatting with the ever-delightful Xeni Jardin. She was facing one of her looming deadlines, and made a joke about brewing her 20th pot of coffee for the day.
I asked Xeni if she had heard the story of John Burns, the former New York Times Iraq correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner, who had fallen ill after returning from Iraq. She hadn't. I heard it in an interview of Burns by Terry Gross on Fresh Air in November of 2003. I can't find anything else about it, and there's no transcript, so for Xeni's reading pleasure (and yours), here's a transcribed version. It's near the end of the interview, and Gross has just asked Burns about his medical problem.
John Burns: I called my wife from the border as I was crossing back into the other world [from Iraq into Jordan] and told her that I'd never been so happy in my life to get away from a place. I felt terrific.
Within half an hour, I didn't feel terrific, and by the time I got to Heathrow, I felt very unterrific indeed, and she took me straight to public hospital, where I spent some time where they diagnosed a case of heart arrythmia, which I have to say immediately this is an extremely common thing. Millions of people, millions of Americans, have this problem. It's the broken ankle of the heart business. The most common cause is stress, and I saw a number of cardiologists as we looked for a fix for this, which we eventually found, I'm glad to say.
And eventually I found myself sitting talking to a man who called himself an electrician, a specialist in the electricity of the heart. And he had a report from another cardio saying, you know, this chap's endured cruise missiles, and arrests by the secret police in Iraq, and one thing and another, and so it's not surprising that this would happen.
This fellow looked at me and he said, "Tell me something. What were you eating in Baghdad during all of this?" And I said, "There wasn't a lot to eat, which is good for me, because I need to lose the weight." "What were you drinking?" And I said, "Well, I'm not a drinker. A couple of vodkas now and then and that's about it. So I was drinking tea." "How much tea?" And I said, "Oh, 25 or 30 cups a day."
And he put a big line through the report that said cruise missiles, secret police, and he said, "My friend," -- he's an Irishman -- he said, "my friend, if you had been a bank manager, sitting right here" -- this conversation took place in England -- he said, "you'd be here right now. That amount of caffeine is one of the most reliable triggers for heart arrythmia."
It never struck me that tea could be an addictive, that it could be a narcotic, in fact. The problem is that if you work for The New York Times as a foreign correspondent, you're working hours and hours ahead of New York, which means working deep into the night. The first edition of The New York Times in New York is something like four or five o'clock in the morning in Baghdad. And I was responsible at that time for running our operations there, so I never got to bed before about six and then slept for two or three hours. And the tea kept me going. And to tell you, a life without tea, would it be worth living? I'm not sure.
I made a compromise with the electrician. He said three cups a day. I kinda double that, and everything seems to be fine.