I get several of those annual Christmas letters from friends that I greatly appreciate and enjoy reading but when I’ve tried to write one myself I’ve been disappointed. With less than a paragraph written in the traditional format, I’m bored with my own boringness.
Then one year I was skimming Esquire magazine, which produces an annual “What I’ve Learned” section where various notables contribute short essays about what the past year has offered to them in terms of more wisdom. I thought I’d try that format myself and found it much more satisfying. Those who know me will not be surprised to learn that much of it has to do with health.
What I’ve learned in 2013
Without your health, you have nothing. The event that really influenced 2013 the most occurred just before the end of 2012. On 12/12/12 at 12:12 pm I found myself laying face up on a table in the cath lab at Durham Regional Hospital getting a stent placed in the cardiac artery they call “the widow maker.” This was not an emergency; I had not had a heart attack yet but it was about to happen. I was lucky but I still felt a bit cheated. I have worked out for many, many years primarily to avoid this. It turned out that the two other major cardiac arteries were also blocked but collateral arteries had developed around the blockages and were providing enough blood to their assigned areas of the heart and this was probably because of all that exercise. So I spent the first night since my 1945 birth in the hospital. It was most unpleasant. I’m not whining. As heart procedures go, this was relatively minor. There was no pain and I was awake and watching with fascination the procedure on the same monitor the doctor was using to place the stent. Nevertheless, the alarm bells had sounded.
Cherish your support network. I don’t like to ask for help. I like feeling independent. But it does feel good to know that in a jam there are people who will be there for you. This year I owe special thanks to my sister Barbara who drove down from Richmond to get me to and from the hospital and take care of Dusty, Bax and Lil that night. I had lots of support from the rest of the family and others here in Durham but Barb is something special and I’ll always be grateful.
No one will take charge of your health if you don’t. It won’t be your doctor, it won’t be your employer, and it sure won’t be any insurance provider, in spite of what any of them might say. After cruising through life relatively healthy for 65+ years I was hit over the head by this realization when I finally did something about the symptoms I was feeling. I had not had a physical for over ten years. When I needed some cash flow and took a part time job at Home Depot, I let it disrupt my workout routine. When Blue Cross Blue Shield quadrupled my insurance premiums I settled for much less coverage including a program for part timers at Home Depot that was little more than major medical. Fortunately, I was on Medicare before my problem really came up but I will never really know whether earlier intervention…which I couldn’t afford…would have helped. Luck always plays a role, but I now understand that numerous lifestyle choices that I have to make, are my best hope for living out the remainder of my life in relatively good health.
Marcus Welby is dead and House is fiction. Health care is the fastest growing segment of our economy. That may be why it is so bad. Health care and the economy should not be mentioned in the same breath. If anything has made me more progressive politically it has been the fight over Obamacare. I see it as a huge compromise between those who insist that the government can’t do anything right and should not be allowed to attempt to and those that look at the systems in other developed countries where the government provides health care with better outcomes and less cost. Economics becomes part of the issue because of the political clout of the large insurance carriers and pharmaceutical companies who, of course, want to preserve their profits.
It amazes me how many free market conservatives tolerate the wide variances in pricing, the incomprehensible billing, crappy customer service and downright misinformation put out by powerful economic interests. Scratch beneath the surface of the recent controversy about the appropriate use of statins for people “at risk” for heart disease and you see how ugly this situation can be.
This has become very personal for me in 2013. I’ve also come to the conclusion that many doctors, either through greed or laziness, are totally complicit in this disaster. America doesn’t have a health care system, it has a sick care system and the more people that are sick the more it grows economically. Obamacare isn’t the answer; the answer is government run health care like most of the rest of the developed world.
By the way, my experience with Medicare could hardly be better. It should be extended to everyone rather than protecting big pharma and big insurance. The idea that the government can’t run something well is absurd on the face of it. My experience with Medicare is far better than my experience with large private, profit-making companies like Time-Warner, Verizon, AT&T, Microsoft or Blue Cross Blue Shield.
I’m happy I survived football. If I had sons or grandsons that were male, I probably wouldn’t encourage them to play football even though it provided some notoriety for me in high school and got me into a school with a full grant-in-aid that I would have otherwise had no chance of attending. In all the years I was playing football I can remember only one time when I had my “bells rung” and that was a collision in practice with an oriental guy by the name of Mike Wong who probably weighed 80lbs less than I did. You really do see stars.
What we have learned about the long term impact of concussions should scare any parent. When I was at Notre Dame we used to say that you had to have talent, luck and good health to get significant time on the field. I’m beginning to believe my good luck was not getting that time. One of my teammates on our National Championship team in 1966 died last year of ALS. He was one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen playing the defensive line. He played many years in the pros after ND. You have to wonder if all that banging around contributed. Helmets are bigger and better now but so are the athletes. I still love watching football especially Notre Dame and the Duke Blue Devils, who practice only a couple of miles from where I live in Durham.
Speaking of the Blue Devils… After almost 30 years in Durham I never thought I would see the day when they had 10 wins in a football season…much less, finish higher in the rankings than Notre Dame. At the end of that 1966 season I reference above, Notre Dame beat Duke 62 to 0. If I hadn’t been hurt, I might have actually played in the game it was so one-sided. Miracles can happen. Go Duke!
Exercise is the key. My stent was so routine the cardiologist didn’t recommend a rehab program. However, I wanted something structured so I found a clinical trial at Duke that was testing the impact of using stress reduction training to improve the “outcomes” of regular exercise rehab. I was just interested in getting some supervision, motivation and feedback in an exercise program. It was one of the smarter things I have done.
When I finished they gave me a tee shirt, a certificate, and a stress test where I achieved a METS level that is considered excellent for guys much younger than I am. The first thing I did after completing that clinical trial was to find another one. This one, which I’m still participating in, is to see whether older adults can lose weight and maintain strength and mobility on a high protein diet. For six months they were giving me enough pre-cooked beef for two meals a day every day. Besides making me appreciate chicken, I have continued to lose weight and am now 40 lbs less than my peak when I first went to the doctor in 2012. The plan is to lose another 10 lbs at least.
I’ve always known that I look and feel better when my weight is down and I’m in shape but like most people I’m prone to take the path of least resistance. It only gets worse when you get older. The real lesson for me here is just how fortunate I am to even realize it. I was by far the healthiest person I encountered in either trial. That goes back to the first lesson. I hate to say it but most people do not want, or know how to, take charge of their own health.
All this has made me super conscious of the obesity problem in this country. I am amazed when I see people who are clearly struggling with their weight rolling carts out of the supermarket loaded with highly processed carbohydrates…cookies, cakes, pies, donuts, soda, etc. Sugar is poison. Each one of these purchases was a choice.
A friend of mine recommended a book to me recently called Younger Next Year. There is the original version for men and one for women. The primary message in both is that people who want to change the slope of the inevitable curve of decline as they approach retirement have to make it their new “job” to improve the odds. The primary prescription is to remember that tens of thousands of years of genetics have “built” us to chase antelope on the Serengeti plains. When we stop chasing…or exercising…our body assumes we’re ready to die and the decline quickens. I highly recommend the book.
There are angels among us. Early in 2013 I got involved with a tutoring program sponsored by my Rotary Club. I spent an hour each Monday morning working with three kids struggling to read in one of Durham’s poorer neighborhoods. This led to 70 hours of training originally meant for teaching someone to help dyslexics but that works in most remedial reading situations. Of the twenty or so students, teachers and coaches involved with the training, I was the only male. Since I barely tolerate kids I was really out of my element with all these highly nurturing women. But the experience also made me appreciate the people that teach in tough situations and especially those that tackle the impossible ones.
I’m ashamed to say that North Carolina by cutting per pupil funding for schools is making the situation even more difficult. They apparently see it as penny wise but it is profoundly pound foolish.
Speaking of angels….Another set of angels are those people that rescue, foster and care for stray animals, especially dogs and cats. I have two friends that I used to work with at different places who I count among those. Both are very attractive women that live in the Atlanta area now and, even though they don’t know each other, are parts of networks that use social media to post pictures, solicit support and otherwise try to reduce the number of pets that are “put down” annually.
Pets are a great joy. Besides being there in my hour of need, I also owe my sister for Bax and Lily, the two cats I adopted when one of Barb’s friends could no longer take care of them. They are the coolest cats I’ve ever known. Dusty, a bichon frise, who was the worst and the best Christmas present when I got him back in 1997, just had his 16th birthday and is still going strong.
Barb also has Lucky, a small dog that was dumped in her neighborhood years ago that she found starving under her shed…probably a refugee from a puppy mill who couldn’t “produce” a litter anymore. Barb also has two cats. My brother Paul has three “indoor” cats and several more that he acquired helping another angel who made a project of capturing and sterilizing feral cats. My other brother Bill has rescued numerous dogs including one with only three legs but mostly Jack Russell Terriers. His most notable though was Sam, a Malamute, who he gave to our parents. Sam pretty much tore up the folks’ home before they all fell in love.
My friend Debbie has a cat, Bella, which I helped her pick out at the Orange County Shelter. That was a tough trip. So many worthy potential adoptees.
Another angel is my friend and fellow Rotarian, Melissa, who has two rescued mutts, one which she literally rescued off the street in east Durham starving, wormy, mangy, dressed in a cotton dress and stuck in a gulley behind a fence. Sara and her house mate, (another Sam) an 80+lb mostly boxer, where my guests for six or seven weeks this summer when Melissa went down with a pretty serious biking accident. When the lights went out at night my bedroom got a little crowded with the six of us sharing the space but we all made it through. Sam and Sara are back home now but are always glad to see me when I visit.
Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder. My daughter Stephanie, her husband and daughter moved to Las Vegas. Madison is 2. Even though I didn’t see them that often when they were just 160 miles up the road in Richmond for some reason I seem to miss them more when they are two time zones away. Anyone have any frequent flyer miles
Happy New Year!