Monday, October 1, 2012

Denial is deadly!

9/12/12 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser

My husband is the picture of health. He doesn’t look his age (70+), works like a man half his age, doesn’t smoke or drink, has ramrod straight posture, loves life and has weighed the same for the last 30 years. He’s got to be healthy—right? Wrong.

Chuck has a family gene pool that is riddled with diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and atherosclerosis. All of the males on his mother’s side of the family died young of one of these conditions.

He is the oldest of three sons with nearly textbook perfect, active life styles to ward off any health problems. Then, his youngest brother, at the age of 50, was found dead while out for a bike ride. His middle brother had a heart attack and open-heart surgery at 53 years old and just recently had another major heart attack.

With a family history like this, aging is a ticking time bomb. Disaster is to be expected and averted if at all possible. In 2003, during an angiogram, Chuck was rushed into surgery for an emergency 5-way by-pass. Then came a diagnosis for CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia) and another for diabetes. Every challenge was met and ‘controlled.’ Except for high blood pressure. And last month it reared its ugly head with dreadful consequences.

We were packing for a long awaited trip to the Yukon. We had been to Alaska a couple of times in the 1980s and cruised the famous Inland Passage; run the scenic Mendenhall Glacier River; seen the totem poles and wildlife. This time we were going to take a short cruise from Vancouver to Fairbanks and then head out on a guided inland tour to places like Whitehorse, Tok and Denali.

We stopped packing our suitcases for a lunch break when Chuck quietly said, “I think I’m having a TIA attack.” He sat down. I ran quickly and gave him two aspirin and we headed for Cottage Grove Emergency Hospital. On the way to the ER he began having a series of strokes that briefly affected his speech and left leg. Come and go.

Here, I must stop and give a shout-out to the ER staff. There were angels in the ER that day. We have been there many times but never have I seen more caring, compassionate and competent nurses and doctors. Everyone from admitting to x-ray was wonderful. Not only were they efficient at their tasks but also at communicating details of each treatment phase. Thank you!

The episodes continued while tests were being done and a neurologist was consulted via technology in Eugene. After a CT scan, he advised a bolus of an anti-clot drug. The dosage was carefully calculated and administered. Then Chuck was flown by helicopter to Sacred Heart’s Riverbend Hospital in Springfield. Helicopter? Yep. A nurse had to be on board to continue administering the clot dissolving medication.

He was immediately rushed to ICU where he stayed under the care of more amazing neurologists and wonderful nurses. It took 10 days longer than the predicted 24-48 hours for the episodes to subside. CT scans and MRIs became the order of the day. The stroke was identified as “Stuttering Lacuna.” A clot located in a small artery (that covers a large portion of real estate) was the culprit. Sometimes it resolves with no problem and sometimes it has permanent deficit.

With Chuck’s history, everyone immediately looked to the heart or diabetes to be the cause. Nope. Both were under control. The problem was high blood pressure. It was totally out of control. And it immediately became clear that (for a multitude of reasons) lowering it was not going to be immediate or easy. It would take time.

The scans showed that before the current episodes, my husband had suffered dozens of silent strokes. Too many to count. The effects of silent strokes are sneaky. They accumulate-causing fatigue, short-term memory and balance problems. Then suddenly, they strike.

This was not a silent TIA and his doctor did not like that term. She said they don’t leave a path like a stroke. Also, people do not take them seriously. They think, “Phew, I dodged that bullet,” she said, and continue to ignore the symptoms that can turn deadly.

Chuck is home now, recuperating slowly and his war against high blood pressure is well under way. This time there will be no half-hearted efforts. A near catastrophe brought a heightened awareness that high blood pressure is more than a condition. It is a daily life and death battle that must be fought to win.

We learned a lot during his time in the hospital. But one of the most important things we learned was simply this: Taking medication does not mean you are a failure—and inevitably, you will need to add more over time. Strokes are devastating. They rob you of who you are. The drugs prevent this. Controlling blood pressure is good and necessary.

So this column is for all of us who ignore life threatening health issues. Maybe you are one. Maybe you’re still smoking after your doctor has warned you that hacking cough could become lung cancer. Maybe your family has a history of breast cancer but you don’t get regular mammograms. Or maybe your medication has too many side effects and you just don’t want to try another one.

Do it anyway! Denial is deadly. I’m telling you bluntly to stop making excuses and decide to live. Wishful thinking isn’t going to make your problem go away. Or, as one doctor told us, “Medication’s side effects are a small price to pay for gaining (quality of) life.”

Every doctor that walked into the hospital room said, “You are a lucky man. This could have been much worse. Consider this a warning. Find a medicine you can tolerate and live.” He is taking that advice.

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.

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