“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose…There is no reason not to follow your heart. … Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
Steve Jobs — Stanford University commencement address, June 2005.
A 49-year-old male patient came in to my office a few weeks ago for a visit and mentioned that he noticed his left arm felt numb after sitting at his computer for a prolonged period. It was an incidental complaint, not what he had come in for but he wanted to mention it to see what I thought. This is a patient who takes very good care of himself, eats a healthy diet, exercises regularly, maintains a good weight and has normal blood pressure and cholesterol. Essentially, minimal risk factors for anything too serious here. Those of you in the medical field probably know where I’m heading with this story; it is one that is not all that uncommon. I was not too suspicious so I examined the patient and told him to follow-up if his symptoms persisted or go to the ER if it got any worse.
Fast forward to later that night, my patient was getting ready to go to the gym and he noticed that the numbness in his arm had gotten worse and that he, “just didn’t feel right.” numbness in most areas can be caused by many things but symptoms in the left arm tends to give us a little more pause because of the association with heart attacks. My patient then made the most important decisions of his life and decided to go to the ER as I suggested earlier that day. He was seen right away because of his symptoms, was found to have an abnormal EKG and blood work and was also found to have a 95% obstruction of his left anterior descending artery in his heart, otherwise known as the widow maker. Because of the extent of the blockage, the artery could not be stented and so he required open heart bypass surgery to fix the problem, a procedure that saved his life.
There are many lessons in this story. As a physician hind site can sometimes be very scary. The what-ifs that creep in can keep you up at night. What if my patient had not mentioned the problem because he thought it was not important, what if I had not been concerned enough to tell him to go to the ER if his symptoms got worse, What if he had waited one more day to see if his symptoms improved? I could go on and on but the outcome would probably be the same. I would be writing about the loss of a patient rather than one who beat the widow maker. We can rejoice in the outcome that we had however, and I will file this story away and use it to become a better doctor going forward.
The other side of this story is that as much as we want to believe we are in control of our health and our destiny, sometimes life steps in and shows us that despite our best efforts, we are all headed for the same fate. Sometimes sooner rather than later. The question is what do we do with this information? My two cents, do everything you can do to live a healthy life and minimize your disease risk, and live your life knowing that your time here is fleeting. Trying to follow these two rules will sometimes have you living at opposite ends of the spectrum. That’s OK. To be diligent about your health is a good thing. Skipping a workout once in a while, and having pizza and beer with your friends or family is too. It is easy to get comfortable in our ruts: working long hours, taking care of family, and going through our routines of exercise. Blink and you lose a month, blink twice, a year. Finding meaning in your life and chasing those big dreams can get lost in those weeks that pass us by. Jobs got it right; acknowledging you are on borrowed time is good motivation, a good way to prevent using a busy life as an excuse to delay chasing dreams and relishing the small moments that give our lives meaning. In 2012 look to my blogs to provide you with information on improving your health and wellness throughout the year. But don’t forget about the other stuff: spend time with the people you love, pursue laughter, order desert once in a while, and take time to ponder what gives your life meaning. Stop putting off the big decisions.
The first recommendation I will give for the new year is to complete a detox program. There is never a convenient time for this but the start a of a new year is a good time to detoxify the body after a long year ending in the overindulgence of the holiday season. Our staff will be doing a one week detox starting next week to get the New Year kicked off. Check out our prior blogs on our detox program and the experience we have had with it if you are interested. A detox week, followed by a week of an organic diet, is a good way to kick-start a weight loss program, help your body eliminate toxins you have built up over the past 12 months, and leave you feeling energized for the new year.
Until next time, Stay Healthy and Live Well… Dr. Mike