I don’t always eat well and my exercise regimen is about as impressive as a Dan Brown novel but I will contend that I have a better health view than most of you. Mostly because I visit a doctor for a check up twice a year. My boss once called me a morbid bastard when I told him I schedule a checkup every year for my birthday. This all started many moons ago when my father had a stroke. You see before that, my father had bypass surgery and way before that my grandfather died of a heart attack shortly before I was born… You might see a trend here. When I hit my 20s was when my dad did his surgery. It happened quick, he went in for a checkup before he started working out to lose weight, they did a cardiogram, and saw some irregularities, our doctor insisted on a stress test for him. He balked but did it anyway, they found more irregularities and scheduled an echo test the next day and they found four shadows in the arteries around his heart. With in a week, my father went from “Hey I am going to lose some weight ” to “holy crap they are going to open my chest in two days or I might die in 6 months”, at least that is how I viewed the whole experience. 1996 a simple group of tests helped my dad dodge a bullet aiming for his heart. The cardiologist gave my dad a 10 year warranty on his work if my dad took care of himself through making some lifestyle changes. Kind of sobering to think about when your life has an expiration date stamped on it but 16 years later and my dad is still alive and walking.
The previous weekend I attended a funeral for an associate and cousin of a long time friend. This is the 2nd funeral in as many years for someone I know who died under 40 where the cause of death was natural. I am no stranger to funerals, as a kid, my social circle with my family was weddings and funerals, we had a lot of both. For some reason, as a teen and in my early 20s I attracted some pretty messed up people. I have endured funerals of my friends that were caused by suicides, over doses, a murder, killed in action and most notably cystic fibrosis. All of them hit me, but none as much as my friend Keith, who died in his sleep last year. Keith was a pillar in a scene of dancers that I was an active participant. He was a producer and well respected. One night, after he closed up his weekly dance event, he went to bed and didn’t wake up, leaving a devastated wife and two wonderful kids behind. At the time of his death, I was on the road. I was waking up every morning (even before he died) with fits of panic and feeling as if I was having a heart attack, like an elephant was sitting on my chest. The news of his death blew me away, here was a man 1 year younger than me, working the same type of job, living the same kind of lifestyle and he just stopped, no warning. I kept thinking about his wife and how she is alone I thought about my roommate finding me dead or my future wife. I got a little pissed because maybe there was something he could have done different. His death inspired me, I can do something different. So I did but I will get to that in just a bit.
During this most reccent funeral, I saw a room filled with sadness and the question of why hanging heavily in the air. While in the first half of my 30s I still have some sense of invincibility, I have always wondered where that went as we grew up. 7 year old Tom would consider me a chicken these days. I am sure it is just a series of lessons learned; burned hands, bruised egos and scraped knees that made me learn to be wary in situations. One thing that many men don’t give up on in the invincibility world, no matter what age, is doctor’s visits. Every man over the age of 25 should get a check up once a year. I don’t care if you don’t have insurance, pay the $150 for the visit and get a baseline of your vitals. You might learn that you have an enlarged heart, or you might have some other condition that, with a little prevention you can live a longer and healthier life by avoiding some pitfalls. It is important to know what hand you have got when you are playing the poker game of life. Sun Tzu expressed the importance of knowing yourself and your abilities to be more important than knowing your enemy. That is why it is so important to see the doctor at least once a year. Give yourself a chance to see a problem when or before it starts to manifest itself.
When I got home from my trip when Keith died, I immediately scheduled a doctors appointment. I did a heart stress test, a cardiogram, blood work and a sleep study. My cardio abilities are a little out of shape, everything else looked good in all the major departments but I learned I have sleep apnea. What most people see with sleep apnea is a guy snoring a lot and loudly, it can be kind of funny. What it really is, is your lungs fighting to keep you alive in your sleep because your throat closes up for one or many reasons. Apnea can take many years out of your life because you don’t get quality sleep, your body is actually making lots of effort in your sleep and in some extreme cases your lungs and heart will stop working for a minute or so. My sleep test was interesting as an experience. They strap, glue and tape about 50 different diodes to my body, lay me down on a nice bed and then tell me to sleep. You have no idea how hard it is to sleep when you feel like you are wired into the Matrix but eventually you do fall asleep. In my case though, I was awoken by my large nurse who was strapping a sleeping mask to my face before I was even aware of the world around me. I had the urge to punch the guy but I did remember where I was and listened as he told me that I had some pretty poor quality breathing. They slapped on an air mask and let me go back to sleep for a few hours. Final diagnosis, I had a bad case of Apnea and needed to sleep with a mask and Cpap machine most nights for the rest of my life. My ego took a bit of a hit. Here I was facing the fact that I wasn’t perfect, that for the rest of my life, I had to sleep with the adult equivalent of head gear for braces. I guess I need to find a woman with a Vader fetish. I had to fight my ego about this and just accept it. It is selfish for me not to use it every night. There are people who need me in their lives in whatever capacity.
There is a special level of tragedy that surrounds the seemingly natural death of someone in their 20s to 40s. When it isn’t cancer or something similar, the questions are always asked “where they secretly on drugs, was it alcohol?” but sometimes people have a condition that sits there quietly until it is time for it to pop up and yell “surprise”. Some you can’t avoid or detect but why not make it harder for the ones you can detect? Going in for check ups on a yearly basis not only helps you in staying healthier but it will help your family as well. Through my grandfather’s early departure, my father was able to better navigate the world of heart health. My father’s near miss has given me more ammunition in the battle of staying alive and well. All the information you learn about your health will help contribute to your children being healthier and possibly keep you around longer, to help guide them through life. So guys, be a man, get that check up.
About the Author: Tom is a director of IT for a financial start-up. He spends his days designing infrastructure and supporting high net worth advisers and their clients. Traveling much for work affords him a great perspective on life and what is important. The high travel has ensured that he goes on a lot of first and second dates. Mel Brooks honed his humor. Johnny Carson, Cee-lo, and Groucho Marx are some of his inspirations.