I'm a medical miracle. That may sound like an exaggeration, but in cholesterol language it is no joke.
For a little over two months I've been taking what my doctor calls a "miracle drug" designed for people who are considered to have genetically high cholesterol -- and it caused mine to drop dramatically -- from 295 to 205.Worrying about our cholesterol levels is driving us all crazy, of course. Although our preoccupation with its dangers is relatively recent, researchers have known about it for a long time.
In 1769, French chemist Poulletier do al Salle first purified the soapy-looking yellow-white substance that is produced by the liver.
Despite its bad reputaion, cholesterol is essential to life. It is a building block of the outer membrane of cells and is a principal ingredient in the digestive juice bile, in the fatty sheath that insulates nerves and in sex hormones such as estrogen and angrogen.
Although most cholesterol is produced in the liver, 20 to 30 percent probably comes from the food we eat.
Physicians didn't become suspicious of cholesterol, especially that in the diet, until they looked inside the diseased arteries of heat-attack victims. Instead of smooth vessels, they saw what looked like hard, brittle pipes clogged by deposits of cholesterol.
In succeeding decades, other studies pointed more and more to cholesterol as a culprit in bringing on atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.
And so our modern curse is to know our cholesterol count as readily as we know our Social Security numbers. I've known that my cholesterol count was higher than my SATs for many years. Several years ago my Massachusetts doctor said that I should be very scared because my cholesterol level was 344.
In those days doctors said your cholesterol was normal if it was 200 plus your age. The new theory is that it needs to go below 200 no matter what your age.
Since either measurement put me at death's door, my doctor prescribed some hideous concoction that he had obviously made at home out of sand an small pebbles mixed with secret chemicals. It was called Questran powder and it came in a large can that looked like it should have held potato flakes.
All I had to do was carry it with me everywhere I went so that I could pour a generous portion of it into a tall glass of water and cheerfully ingest it with every meal. As inconvenient as it seemed, I was determined to increase my longevity, and so I took it.
After one solid week of severe, wrenching stomach cramps I consciously decided that early death from a heart attack was preferable. I took the ugly can of stuff and stored it in a closet, to be used again only in winter on walkways and doorsteps.
I liked my new doctor. He told me that my cholesterol -- 280 then --was five points lower that his and that he, like me, had no other risk factor. Neither of us was overweight, smoked, had high blood pressure, diabetes or a family history of coronary heart disease.
He wisely suggested I watch my diet but otherwise not to sweat it.
I didn't worry again until I moved to Utah and got another new doctor, who retestedme and pronounced my cholesterol level staggering. He said I should take a drug called Mevacor, purported to have few if any side effects, approved by the FDA in 1987.
I was to take the tiny blue pill once a day for two months, while watching my diet for fatty foods, exercising regularly and losing 15 pounds -- because I should be as lean as possible.
After two months I plan to stick to it with the hope that my one pesky risk factor is history.
Not only is my cholesterol reading the most normal I've ever had, but my new svelte 10-pounds-lighter self is irresistible to women.
Except now I need a new wardrobe.