29 March 2010

One More Healthy Lap

Owing to the title of this blog, it’s appropriate to note that I’ve just completed one more lap around the sun and am now one year closer to that next age group. And while on the topic of milestones, it’s now been five years and 7,700 miles since I returned to the world of the runners, five years that have done very good things for my health. This is pause for some reflection.

A couple of days before the Big 47, I went to see my new doctor, having had to procure a new one after apparently driving the last two out of town (a shame, I liked the previous one, we’ll call him Dr. Driven-Out-Of-Town-Two) for a ‘get to know you’ and a physical. I’m pleased that she was pleased to learn of my exploits, unlike Dr. Driven-Out-Of-Town-One who – hard as it is to believe – berated me for running too much. I’m sure that 90% of his patients were Certified Couch Potatoes, yet this guy frequently reminded me that, in his mind, “The human body was not designed to run marathons,” and handed out another prescription. It was not a terribly sad day when he moved away.

Dr. Driven-Out-Of-Town-Two, on the other hand, greatly appreciated my contribution to the reduction in his Patient Couch Potato Ratio, promptly yanked me off all but the weakest cholesterol med, and simply enjoyed the story with quiet mirth when I walked in with the broken nose after Wineglass. My kind of guy. But sadly, he too ran for the hills (literally, New Hampshire), which led me to his replacement, who we’ll call Dr. Lady Doctor, she being the first of her gender to serve as my primary portal to the health care system. On that day, Dr. Lady Doctor proved to be a worthy replacement, applying intelligence rather than sheer number recognition to my primary medical issue; that being a slightly high overall cholesterol count – but slightly high in part due to being boosted in part by a towering good cholesterol count that frankly I’m pretty proud of, knowing that running contributes that that positive result.

But then things got a little tricky, and the head-case gnomes had their day. Based on a minor complaint, she ordered up a couple of reasonable tests, just to be sure all was well. I left a little of me in her lab and went on my merry way, only to return home that evening to the ominous, “Please call the office,” phone message.

Now, I’m nearing 50 but in my view healthy as a horse, at least compared to the average Joe. Yet in the last few weeks I’ve seen several of my contemporaries get some bad news, in one case very, very, very bad, and I’m not foolish enough to think that runners don’t also have issues. We die, too. And for some reason, that phone message set me off. No logic, no reason, just the head-case gnomes set loose.

As it happened, the next day was one of the wilder ones, racing from one customer meeting to another, always unable to call in when the doctor’s office was able to pick up the phone. As the day progressed, my irrational black cloud grew thicker and darker. I was sure something was up, or down, or otherwise out of whack. I was sure the Big Decline was about to begin.

Not until day’s end did I finally reach them. “Oh, the doctor was looking over your files and you haven’t had a tetanus shot since 1996.” Gales of hysterical laughter. Recognition of my own self-induced stupidity. Perplexing thank-yous to the nurse on the other end for her not having told me of my imminent demise.

We all know it is going to come some day, and every day brings us closer. But it behooves us not to let ourselves get there ahead of time. It’s just not healthy. Take care of your health, and believe in your health. When the time comes, as my wife reminded me during my 24-hour funk, we’ll deal with it.

Which of course brings us to a certain national issue, one that is sure to raise hackles no matter what I say, but one which, in the context of this topic, can’t be ignored. When I was younger (note that I said “younger”, not “young”, as I won’t really admit to being old yet) I truly believed that for the most part, each person’s health was under their own control. As I’ve aged, it’s become clear that while plenty is within our control, that while responsible and healthy living are absolutely important and unfortunately not practiced by nearly enough people, the reality is that excrement occurs. People smoke and drink and eat cheese balls and live to 105, and others like my dear friend who has lived a very clean life are diagnosed with almost-certainly-terminal cancer when only a few years older than I.

With that reality, we as a society have to accept that health crises happen and will, at some time, probably happen to all of us. Only the luckiest among us will live those charmed lives of blissful health until we drive into a tree at high speed at age 87 and turn off the lights instantly. And we have to accept the reality that in our society, that health crisis can and will break you not just physically but financially. Even those of us with well-paying jobs and money in the bank are just eighteen months (one layoff, COBRA, and no new job) and one diagnosis away from financial ruin. Here in Massachusetts we’ve put a safety net in place. Those elsewhere, which is most everyone else, aren’t that lucky.

The health care bill passed into law is seriously flawed, no doubt. But it’s a start. It’s something that can now be tuned and tweaked to make it better over time. It will cost us money. Personally, I don’t care, I’m willing to pay a little more in taxes to build the kind of society that I want to live in. People quickly forget what tax levels were like in the pre-Reagan years. Do some hunting on the web and find out – it will open your eyes. And not just the marginal rates on the rich. In those days many of the exemptions, deductions, and credits that currently erase or negate payments by a vast group of lower-income people simply didn’t exist.

I’m not wishing for the days of skyrocketing tax rates. But Warren Buffet has noted that the only reason he could make his billions is because he lived in a nation that had built a society that made it possible, a society with certain norms and expectations and structures that provided the stability that made it possible for him to thrive. People going belly-up left and right due to medical bills do not make for a stable society. Perhaps twenty five years in the Bay State have turned me more blue, but I like to think it’s accumulated wisdom & compassion. I want to live in a society where we’re willing to pay a percent or two to care for the inevitabilities that will befall each of us, a society that recognizes that whether you live or die shouldn’t be determined by who your employer is.

Have those who’ve thrown bricks through windows in protest thought about what they’re saying? That they’ll resort to violence to withhold care and compassion for their neighbors? And eighteen months and one diagnosis later, perhaps themselves?

Take care of your health, believe in your health, and believe that we all deserve to do the same.

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