June 5, 1997
Matters of the Heart
She married him and lived his life. Impeccably groomed and almost pathologically calm, she saw him through law school, career advancement and a successful public career. She raised three children and worried about her husband's health, his stress level, his cholesterol intake.
Then, she had his heart attack.
Mickey Wapner was 65. She exercised regularly, didn't smoke and ate a moderate diet. She and her doctors now believe that it was years of stress that almost killed the perpetually cheerful wife of "People's Court" Judge Joseph Wapner.
Now 72, Mickey Wapner says that she is a different woman than the one who dutifully stood in the shadow of the famous judge -- gritting her teeth and wishing for an identity of her own.
She is also a smarter woman. She knows that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women today, that a woman is twice as likely to die after her first heart attack and that mental stress is more dangerous to the heart than physical stress.
In her new book, "Women at Risk of Heart Attack: A Personal Experience, a Personal Research," Wapner shares her own research on women and heart disease, interweaving medical information with surprisingly candid details about the strain of being Mrs. Wapner.
Looking fit and serene in a flouncy jade-green dress, Wapner talked about her book during a recent interview in her Los Angeles home.
"Once I discovered that stress was a major factor, if not the biggest factor, in my heart disease, I needed to tell my readers, 'You need to be honest with yourself about the stress in your life.' I could do no less," said Wapner, explaining why she chose to reveal such personal details about her life before the heart attack.
In the book, she writes about an industry event where her husband would introduce her to fans and celebrities: "People would turn aside, sometimes mumbling a word of acknowledgment, and look at the place where I was standing as if it were vacant."
Married at 21, she abided by her husband's wish that she put aside her career as a journalist. Although she volunteered on many high-profile political campaigns and worked at UCLA in public relations, her career always took a back seat to that of Judge Wapner's, especially after he took the job on "The People's Court."
But after surviving several days of agonizing chest pains and lengthy surgeries, including one in which her heart stopped for more than an hour, Mickey Wapner's perspective changed. The first thing she said to her husband was "I don't know what I'm going to do with the rest of my life, but I'm not going to take any s--- from anyone."
At that point, she began to suspect that stress had contributed to the formation of plaque in her heart. She began the research that led to her book, and is now on a mission to inform women about heart disease.
"I want to publicize the effects of stress, to ask women to look at their lives. We are raised to be people pleasers, to put our husbands and families first," Wapner said.
For some women, she says, taking care of their own needs means "changing a lifetime of habits."
Even for Wapner, falling into her old stress-filled patterns is sometimes inevitable. Still, she tries to follow what she jokingly calls "Mickey's tips," which include having someone to talk to, planning a pleasant activity every day, avoiding tense situations when possible, allowing anger to dissipate and meditating daily.
She also talks about a transition in her spiritual life since having a near-death experience. Although she and her husband have long been involved in the Jewish community, particularly through their work with the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, Wapner said that she never believed in God.
"I was unsure, doubting," Wapner said. "[After surviving], I felt a sense of God's intervention. My doctors expressed that to me too. They felt something was driving them beyond what they had done in the past."
Doctors called Wapner "The Miracle Woman." She doesn't know if it was a miracle or just the fact that "there's a spirit in every person. That spirit is what keeps fighting, even when you're not even aware of it."
As she spoke about her new spirituality and now-excellent health, her famous husband tiptoed behind her in his perfectly ironed khakis.
"I didn't even hear you Joey," she said, looking backward.
"I didn't want to disturb you," the judge said, leaving quickly.
"You can see," she said softly, "that we have a wonderful, long-standing, devoted friendship and marriage." But after 50 years together, it is her turn to thrive -- and his moment to stand encouragingly in the shadows.
"Women at Risk of Heart Attack" (Pangloss Press, $20) is available at several local bookstores, including Dutton's Books in Brentwood and Portrait of a Bookstore in Toluca Lake, or by calling (310) 457-3293.
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