Unlike most people writing reflections on the late Garry Shandling, I had no personal or professional connection to him. Of course I thought he was funny, in a pioneering cringe-inducing way. And like many people I am of course sorry that he has died.
But here is why I am stepping outside my normal realm of discourse to say something more in the wake of his death. In his wonderful and touching “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” segment with Jerry Seinfeld, filmed not long before his death, Shandling mentions that he’s been diagnosed with an obscure disorder called hyperparathyroidism. He makes it a joke: “The symptoms are so much like being an older Jewish man, no one noticed!” But I noticed this mention, and I think it’s worth broader attention.
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The parathyroid (PT) glands, as I have come to know, have nothing to do with the much more famous thyroid gland. Most people have four of them, usually located in the neck; they are very small, and they regulate the level of calcium in the blood. For most healthy people, the blood-calcium level is confined within a narrow range. If your reading goes above that range, it likely means that something has gone wrong with one of your PT glands, usually because of a noncancerous tumor called an adenoma. If that is so, it likely means that you won’t get better until the gland is surgically removed. As long as it is there, it will keep pumping out hormones that direct your body to keep raising the blood-calcium level, even though that is already too high. Usually just one of the glands has developed a disorder, and usually people can get along fine after having one, two, or even three of the four PT glands removed. But until the bad one is taken out, your health is going to get worse and worse and worse. One of the ways it might deteriorate is through a premature tendency to heart attacks—and a heart attack appears to have been what felled Garry Shandling at age 66.
I know all this because the only real health problem I’ve ever had was a parathyroid disorder, starting ten years ago. When I was just about to move to China in 2006, my American doctor said that a blood-calcium level looked high, and we should keep an eye on it. When I was back for a visit a year later, he said it was a little higher. After that, at his advice, I went to a clinic in Beijing every few weeks for a blood reading. (When they draw blood in Chinese clinics, at least the ones I went to, they don’t use the rubber strap that makes your veins pop out and thus easier to find and pierce. I never could figure out the explanation, but I can tell you that having the technician prowl around in your arm with the needle, in search of a vein, adds a whole new attention-getting aspect to having your blood drawn.)