It is June, which means it’s the beginning of summer, as well as, Men’s Health Awareness Month. What, you never heard of that? It’s not surprising as most men have never heard of it either. In fact, I would venture a guess that most of the people that will read this blog are going to be women. Yes women, looking for ways to keep their men healthy. And why might you ask are women more likely to be interested? Because men don’t want to hear it, men don’t want to go to the doctor, and men figure if they have a new pain or symptom, it will just go disappear and away. “I’ll be fine” is the standard response to any provocation. If you want to get a man NOT to do something, then tell him what he “has” to do or what he “should” do. This blog is a message to men and the women in their lives to appeal to the concepts that will most motivate them toward self-care. I come to this knowledge not by my academic training as a psychotherapist, but through firsthand experience, and it is with great thanks to the ladies in my life that I’m able to share this message.
Six years ago, I had been feeling what I thought was most likely and acid reflux condition. I was starting to exercise by walking with my wife after dinner, and each time we started, I would feel the symptom. My wife, Candy, of course suggested I see a doctor, but no, I knew best, and told her I thought it was just a digestive thing. Frustrated, my wife pushed a bit harder, and I of course pushed back stating that I was fine. After all, I was 56, working at night stocking shelves, and working two internships during the day. It didn’t matter that my dad had heart bypass surgery at the same age as I was, or that I didn’t exercise or watch my diet, and as a consequence was 80 pounds overweight. I didn’t want to take my wife’s advice to see a doctor, because after all I knew best, and I knew that I wasn’t weak and I didn’t think the symptom wasn’t very serious.
Candy made a plea that if I wouldn’t get it checked out for me, then please do it for her, our children, grandchildren, parents, and family. I became cool on the subject and ignored her plea by restating my position, and ending my point with the brilliant closing argument that, “I know my body, and I swear that I’m fine”.
The next day, I was at my internship at a local community college, where we did counseling in the Student Health Center. We worked alongside the nursing staff and my good friend nurse Judy was working that day. When we both had a few moments to talk, I brought up my “acid reflux” symptoms, just to get some justification that I was right. Judy being a professional and a woman married to a man, intelligently started by validating my personal diagnosis, and then by saying. “You know Jim, given your age, weight and family history of heart disease, it wouldn’t be a bad idea just to get it checked out.” So of course I took her advice (she is a professional after all) and made an appointment to see my doctor. What I didn’t know or suspect was that a time bomb was ticking away.
It took a couple of weeks to get an appointment, and I didn’t actually see the doctor, I saw the nurse practitioner who I very much liked and with whom I had complete confidence in her medical abilities. She gave me an EKG, and what did you know, nothing was found. Ha! I knew it! Then Nurse Shirley said, “Jim, given your family history, I’m going to push for an Echocardiogram, just to be sure.” She explained that it was a harmless non-evasive procedure that would take about 30 minutes. Of course health care being what it is today, my insurance company had to approve it, and after a few weeks, I was able to make an appointment a few weeks later. Tick, tick, tick, tick, was the sound of time running out that no one could yet hear.
The echocardiogram was an easy procedure. They did find something, but they didn’t find the bomb. The cardiologist told me that there was restrictive blood flow in my heart and they wanted to schedule an angiogram. That is a procedure where they use a catheter through your femoral artery to the heart to actually see what’s going on in there. Again, insurance had to be approved, and it took another few weeks to get it scheduled. By the time I was able to make an appointment, it was the week before Thanksgiving, and the bomb ever ticking was still active and set to explode.
The angiogram was set for the Thursday before Thanksgiving. Now, the week before Thanksgiving is the busiest week of the year in the grocery business, and as grocery manager, I had many things to do and many things to get done in preparation for the week of Thanksgiving. I was able to get the night off before my procedure so I could comply with the doctors request to come rested to the appointment. I was to show up at the hospital at 6:00 a.m. to check in. By 7:00 they were prepping me for the procedure. The cardiologist came in, and I asked him if I would be able to go back to work the next day. He said that the procedure would take about an hour to an hour and 45 minutes as I would probably have a couple of stints put in, and would be good to go by late afternoon. That fit in perfectly with my plan. The procedure started, and it was no big deal. You are awake while it’s being done, there is no pain, and it’s important that you just be still. In just a short amount of time, they removed the catheter, and I had to lie still for about six hours so a good blood clot could form at the entry point. I knew I was about to receive some bad news, because the procedure was too short for stints to have been inserted. My wife and daughter were with me in the hospital room when a new cardiologist came into the room. He was a heart surgeon, and they had found the time bomb. It was what they call the “Widow Maker”. He explained that once that area gets fully blocked, the patient usually does not survive the attack that ensues. I was not leaving the hospital, I was not going back to work as a grocery manager ever, but I was going to have open heart surgery as soon as they could arrange it, which was hopefully the next day. I of course had choices, but nothing but heart surgery could guarantee prolonged quality of life.
The fear and distress I witnessed from wife and daughter gave me pause. I reflected on the cost of not exercising better judgment when it came to caring for myself. I realized the better I took care of myself, the more care I showed for them. I realized my wife’s pleas were not annoyances; they came from deep love, care, and concern. Had I not listened to the women, my wife, Nurse Judy, and Nurse Shirley, I would not be writing this blog. I would not have been at my daughter’s wedding the following May, nor witnessed the birth of two granddaughters.
So here are a few simple tips for self care. First, get a regular check up with your physician. Statistics show that about 51% of men over 50 will see the doctor at least once in a year, that’s 49% who don’t see one at all! Now, all us men know we probably don’t need a physical check up, but if integrity is important to you, then you owe it to the people who depend on you for emotional and financial support to follow through. Everyone in your life will greatly appreciate it. It will reduce their stress and anxiety, and will give them a sense of security that you’re being proactive in caring for yourself, and it will give the added benefit that you are taking care of them. So, get your heart, colon, prostate, and any other ailments checked. Actually talk to your doctor or nurse and tell them everything that is going on with you.
Two, exercise. Why? Because 69.9% of men are overweight or obese, thus putting them at risk for the leading causes of death in this country, namely heart disease and diabetes. Exercise: lowers blood pressure, reduces strain on the heart, increases good HDL cholesterol that transports fat away from the arteries and back to the liver for processing, and may reduce levels of bad LDL cholesterol that can form fatty deposits in the arteries and contribute to heart disease.
Three, eat right! I didn’t write DIET, eat right, be intentional about what you eat. Lean meats, fish, fowl are excellent proteins. Dark green vegetables are also an excellent nutrition source, namely, vegetables like kale, spinach, broccoli, and brussel sprouts, to name a few. Cut down on the cheese, breads and spuds, and be conservative with the spirits. Most of us love beer, and we do live in the craft beer capital in the world, but we don’t have to sample each of them nor have an alcoholic drink every day.
Four, the most difficult, and maybe the most important, is to listen to your women. As much as you might not want to hear, remember that their message is coming from love and care, don’t fight them, honor them!
Men, I work daily with women who have lost their spouse or partner. Spouse loss is a very intense and difficult thing to go through. One goes through many emotions, and women invariably feel that they themselves didn’t do or say enough to prevent things. Men, you have it in your power to alleviate that piece of guilt from their grief. You can leave them with the thought and feeling that you did everything in your power to care for yourself and them. If you don’t, they may have some anger at you, but mostly they will feel terrible and guilty that they didn’t do a better job taking care of you. Men, you have it in your power not to leave that legacy behind.
To all my brothers out there, take care of your family, by taking care of yourself. Work on living a long life of vitality, bring joy to the ones you love, give what you can to your community, and share your wisdom with those with whom it will benefit!
Jim Reiser M.A. MFT
Hospice of the North Caost
National Vital Statistics Reports: Deaths 2013 http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr64/nvsr64_02.pdf
2014 statistics from the CDC http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/2015/065.pdf