Column: Serious as a Heart Attack

Zingerman's Paul Saginaw: "I feel humbled and grateful."
Paul Saginaw

Paul Saginaw

Editor’s note: The following is an edited version of a letter that Paul Saginaw, co-founder of Zingerman’s, sent to his partners following a heart attack he suffered last month. Here at The Chronicle, we wish Paul all the best in his recovery, and thank him for sharing this cautionary tale.

Although hard for me to believe, I did, in fact, suffer a small heart attack. I also understand that if I do as I’ve been told, I am going to be okay. 

I believe that it occurred on Thursday night during a tennis match when it felt like “an elephant was stepping on my chest” and someone was pulling my arms out of their sockets. (What’s scary is that this is exactly how it was described in the book Lori [Saginaw] brought home for me, on page 20: The No Bull Book on Heart Disease, Okner and Clorfene.) 

Because I have the lethal combination of high tolerance to pain combined with low intelligence, I continued to play tennis for 2 1/2 hours more despite my partner’s willingness to forfeit. And although we lost, I have to say I played some of my best tennis. Probably due to my lacking the energy to over-hit the ball and having only enough in me to barely manage the basics. In retrospect, passing up the beer afterwards should have been a clue, but instead of the ER, I headed home and directly to bed.

Friday evening climbing up the back steps, I started to sweat profusely and felt uncomfortably fatigued. But once again, I missed the obvious clue of not having the normal desire to overeat or drink.  

Saturday morning at the gym on the elliptical, that nasty elephant pain returned and it got the owner and my trainer, Heather, (a good Roadhouse customer and wife of Carsten Hohnke, the councilperson who helped save West Side Farmer’s Market this year) to come over and ask why I was moving like a turtle. “Angina.” Whoa, she yanked me off the machine, told me to get my ass to the doctor, and forbid me to come back until I had a doctor’s release. Liability, I am thinking.  

Then walking two blocks to my car I actually had to stop to rest twice. So maybe by now slightly shaken, I finally called Lori in California. And though I protested that I would see a doctor on Monday, she used some unauthorized tactics to extract my promise to get to the ER that afternoon.  

At the ER were the usual suspects – a crack head with self-inflicted wounds and his scantily dressed girlfriend screaming for someone to do something (definitely Jerry Springer Show candidates), a man handcuffed to his gurney, a baby, two small children, an elderly woman, and me. Well, I found that just mentioning chest pain got me cuts in line and whoosh – I was ahead of everyone.  

After the EKG, it really started to speed up – wheelchair, bed, IV’s, monitors, lots of questions. The attending physician came in, sat down, looked me in the eye and said, “Mr. Saginaw, you have experienced a heart attack.” To which I argued, “I don’t really think so.” To which he replied, “It’s not my opinion, it’s a fact that the test results indicate.” For some reason he believed the EKG and cardiac enzyme levels in my blood. 

“Wow. Is this really happening?” I thought. I’m supposed to be at the Downtown Home and Garden annual summer party right now. Dancing to the Lady Sunshine Band, overeating, and drinking.  

The words “heart attack” are shocking. Heart attacks happen to other people. But he had finally gotten my attention and suddenly I was taking stock of my life. Are things in order? Have I been a good husband, a good father, a good son, and a good partner? Am I at peace with the people in my life? Are there things that have been left unsaid? I’m not joking – actually serious as a heart attack. That doctor got my mind racing as fast as my poor heart. 

Before I knew it, I’m admitted, wheeled into a room, tested more times then a laboratory rat, and scheduled for a catheterization on Monday morning. My cardiologist neighbor, Jim Bengston, did me the favor of deciding I’d already administered my own stress test over the past three days so we could skip that step. Thanks a lot, Jim. 

Next morning, Sunday, Rabbi Leibowitz and Father Mangigian arrived to administer my last rites – a #48/old – and I savored every bite as I tasted what I would be missing from then on. 

The catheterization worked like a charm and showed that my right anterior coronary artery was 98% blocked, so Dr. Bengston efficiently installed a stent to open it up. He saw the left main coronary artery was 30% blocked but decided to leave it alone and treat it with drugs and changing my lifestyle. Next day I was discharged with more medications than a pharmacy and the idea of this new lifestyle.

At my neighborhood CVS, it was a very humbling and humiliating moment when I purchased a “7 day AM/PM” pill dispenser. What’s unbelievable is that I stood there actually comparing all the different models and weighing their merits. Well Paulie, welcome to the aging process. I hope it doesn’t get much more thrilling than this cuz my heart can’t take it anymore… 

The docs discharging me emphasized that I needed to start taking it easy. “Learn to relax,” they all said. Well, I have begun to try to relax these past few days and I will tell you that it is harder work than it would seem. Definitely not the sort of work to which I am accustomed. Yesterday I sat on my living room couch and just read (fiction, no less) and watched all the neighborhood activity through the front windows. It dawned on me that the only time in my adult life that I have ever done anything remotely similar was when I was immobile with a high fever.  

It’s hard to pull back and stop. It takes conscious effort because everything around me just keeps going on and no one wants to feel left out of the action. But in slowing down I have been given the rare opportunity to actually consider what’s important and contemplate what really matters to me. My sons have noticed and my wife has even complimented me. It’s going to take me a while to get the hang of this. I will be taking the next several weeks to figure it all out and I’m considering not returning to work until September 7.  

There’s actually a simple moral to this story and it is this: Pay attention to what your body is saying to you; life is short enough without shortening it through carelessness, stupidity or arrogance. I feel humbled and grateful. And this also occurs to me: We all work so damn hard, committed to providing the Zingerman’s Experience for our customers, our co-workers, the Community and one another. But if each of us doesn’t provide that quality experience to our own individual selves, how can we count on doing it for anyone else? We cannot. Would each of you please slow down, relax, and take better care of yourself – starting today.


  1. By Bob Martel
    August 12, 2009 at 5:16 pm | permalink

    Good advice Pauli! And I am glad that you are still on the same side of the grass as am I. I’m definitely going to knock off the exercise since that was clearly the proximate cause of your incident! Anyone want a slightly used treadmill?

  2. August 12, 2009 at 6:33 pm | permalink

    OMG, this makes me want to cry! What a beautiful letter–and all my best wishes, prayers and good vibes to Mr. Saginaw.
    PS: When I went into the ER for my–obviously much less important–dry sockets last year, I think the same crackhead dude was there!!

  3. By Leah Gunn
    August 12, 2009 at 6:38 pm | permalink

    This is a wonderful article, and, as Paul said, a cautionary tale. We all wish a speedy recovery to one of the jewels of our town. Paul – you are a great guy in so many ways, so take care of tourself. We need you.

  4. By Tom
    August 12, 2009 at 7:56 pm | permalink

    golf instead of tennis, red instead of white and hold the bacon.

  5. August 12, 2009 at 8:08 pm | permalink

    What a fantastic and captivating author. The story is definitely thought provoking and I’m glad he is ok, but I can’t stop thinking that I want to read anything this guy has to say.

  6. By suswhit
    August 12, 2009 at 8:14 pm | permalink

    Scariest part: “should have been a clue, but instead of the ER, I headed home and directly to bed.” ACK! You coulda woke up dead!!

    Best wishes for a speedy recovery and I’m with Chaely, you are a great story teller.

  7. By Mike Garrison
    August 12, 2009 at 9:47 pm | permalink

    Glad you’re okay! That’s scary though, can’t imagine going through that. I strongly agree with the “Pay attention to what your body is saying to you; life is short enough without shortening it through carelessness, stupidity or arrogance”.

    I ignored some of the signs for a while. When UofM offered $100 if we had a medical assessment done, I decided why not! The results were a smack to the face. 25 years old, high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, high cholesterol. Not good at all. I started going to the gym and got a personal trainer. I started eating healthier – No, I really don’t need the Extra Extra Extra caramel machiatto from Starbucks. I’ve lost weight, gained muscle, and I’m starting to feel athletic! It’s an amazing difference, for me.

  8. By John Reed
    August 12, 2009 at 10:18 pm | permalink

    The very best of wishes to you, Mr. Saginaw. You are most certainly well-loved by many and we are all much better off for knowing you.

  9. August 13, 2009 at 10:27 am | permalink

    Thank you for sharing your wake-up call with the community. Once again, you’ve inspired me and so many others. Get well soon, and stay there!

  10. August 13, 2009 at 3:35 pm | permalink

    Thanks for sharing such a personal experience Paul, and you did it so eloquently and with humor. May you recover quickly and slowly move back into a new routine. We’ll all be looking forward to seeing you around town soon.

  11. August 13, 2009 at 6:07 pm | permalink

    Best wishes. What a fascinating and interesting article. Many more years of feeding ann arbor!

  12. August 14, 2009 at 9:45 am | permalink

    Hi Paul,

    We’re grateful that you’re OK and thank you so much for such a great article.

    And, please know that our prayers and best wishes are always with you and Lori.

    Lloyd & all of the Washtenaw County Public Defenders

  13. By Barbara Levin Bergman
    August 14, 2009 at 4:59 pm | permalink

    Dear Paul,

    Thank you for sharing your story. We should all take note and listen to our bodies.

    That having been said, most important be well and don’t let the docs talk you completely out of a good Zing’s sandwich– at least once in a while.


  14. By Steph a knee
    August 15, 2009 at 5:59 pm | permalink

    Hello Paul,

    You best mind Lori and sit on those hands! If not, I will help her construct an apparatus that forces you to. After all, there is something to be said for sitting on a couch and daydreaming out the window. It’s a great creativity creator. The hand part may help with your pain tolerance and staring may ramp up your lack of intelligence.

    Feel better dang it! Too many love you.


  15. By wendy shaffer
    August 17, 2009 at 7:46 am | permalink

    Certainly inspirational and of course doused with humor. Falling down has its lessons then we move on to the next level of awareness. Does this mean no more bacon at Zing’s? Take good care, Wendy

  16. By Mike D.
    August 23, 2009 at 9:53 am | permalink

    Paul, you could be a writer. I am so glad you survived this. I have a word of encouragement: You can still genuinely enjoy eating. I switched from a fat (and Zing’s) heavy diet to a low-fat diet 2 years ago, and I have lost 50 lbs. and my BMI and cholesterol are at ideal levels. More important, I still love to cook and eat–I just do it differently. For your health (and your business), please consider a low-fat, heart-healthy menu for Zingerman’s Deli. There’s not one low-fat thing on the sandwich menu. Really. Not one. I asked for a dry grilled sandwich last night, and I still had to sop the oil out of the bread. What about “Paul’s Second Chance Menu” focused on fish, grilled chicken, mustard, balsamic vinegar, exotic spices, light cheeses, and dry toasted (not grilled) bread; and light on heavy cheese, mayo, Russian, etc.? Maybe even list the nutritional values for these? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to order a sandwich that was good for you and tasted good? I’d sure visit the deli a lot more.