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Posts Tagged ‘Health’


karmaAs I sat moaning in the chair I figured it was karma that took me down, that “what comes around goes around” thing that threatens people with payback for behaving unbecomingly.

Id recently boasted to a sick friend that I never get sick.  Then whammo the hammer fell.  Sick?  Me?  It had been years!  But there was no mistaking the progressive worsening of my breathing, a deep guttural cough that ripped apart my ribs and sternum and my foggy head that wouldn’t allow me to concentrate to read or enjoy anything on TV.  I couldn’t even sit still for long before breaking into coughing spasms.  And lying down to sleep? Forget about that; I couldn’t even fall asleep at night let alone catch a few daytime zzzzs.  Maybe the steroid was the culprit that pumped me with too much energy to relax and doze off.  Between that pill, the steroid nose spray and the doxycycline I was supposed to feel better in a couple of days.  So much for the doctor’s promise.  Instead I got worse and the upper respiratory distress went deeper and turned into bronchitis that called for a stronger antibiotic.

justicescales.jpegFor the last two weeks of April I wondered if I’d ever feel like me again.  Was I destined to fight for breath, cough my ribs apart and sound like a croaking frog when I tried to talk?  Would I ever fall asleep again?  While I wandered around the house and yard feeling sorry for myself and caught an hour or so of TV at night before retiring to my bed to sit the night away — I realized the following ….

  1. Breathing is not over-rated.  That silly comment has always been my stand by retort to my husband each time he reminded me that 5 cats and 1 dog are enough animals for 1 household.  That his asthma, though controlled and manageable, is not a pleasant experience in the pollen capitol of the country here in E. TN.  He’s used to not breathing easily.  I’m not.  And this experience is enough to make me consider relocating to a better ventilated part of the country.
  2. I’ve always taken my good health for granted.  Now in my late 50s it’s rare for me to be under the weather.  I’ve had a couple of health scares in my life, but just a couple.  OK, maybe a few and when they occur they’re doozies.  I don’t tend to get something simple, instead it’s things with weird symptoms, one series of which prompted a trip to the Mayo Clinic to discover it was cat scratch fever.  And then there was a surreal episode of transient global amnesia which lasted probably 12 hours when my short-term memory took a vacation, leaving me no idea what day it was or what any of my calendar notations meant.  Doctors still don’t know what caused it or whether it will ever happen again.
  3. My discipline comes from outside.  Who knew that my habit of snacking in the evenings in front of the TV was easily controlled by the dictates of an antibiotic that required an empty stomach for a final night-time dose.  Never mind that I’ve been trying to stop that pesky snacking for years.  Now, suddenly, because I wasn’t allowed to, I didn’t.  What’s wrong with my personal self-discipline?!
  4. I’m a bad patient.  Because I’m so rarely sick (notice I didn’t say never?) I don’t do sick well, especially if I can’t do something productive with time in the house.  Can’t read, watch TV, don’t want to eat or cook and can’t even sleep.  Yech.  Just wandering around and moaning was my activity of choice, that and feeling sorry for myself.  When I’m well I subscribe to the Buddhist notion that suffering can be avoided by accepting that life is filled with peaks and valleys and there will always be bad times as part of the human condition.  But somehow when I was sick, I chose to suffer.   At least I was able to observe that, right?
  5. Bug bites can be bad.  Who knew?  Working in the garden is fraught with potential disaster – fire ants, spiders, ticks, bee stings are all conspiring to make yard beautification dangerous.  A couple of years ago a thorn prick on my arm turned into a staph infection, again requiring antibiotics.  This year something jabbed my thigh and caused an allergic reaction.  I still don’t know what got me, though we’ve pretty much ruled out most things, leaving a spider bite as the highest probability.

AprilShell1So I’ve certainly lived April and the beautiful, calming curves of the conch shell signifying another month lived belies the turmoil in my life this month.  I suppose they can’t all be good.  And I have come out the other end, well again.  For that I’m extremely grateful.  On to May …

How was your April?

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FebShell1Another month has gone by and now six months have passed since I started this year-long conscious living project.  The shell that comes out of my bowl of 12, signifying a month lived, is dangerous looking and prickly.  The little sea animal that used to live inside did its best to stave off predators.  Any one bold enough to try to snack on this creature risked injury in the process.  I guess it’s sort of like life in that you never know what each day will bring.  It could bring joy, sorrow or danger.  It’s filled with risk of varying degrees.  One day you’re healthy — and the next, maybe you’re not.  Of that I’m acutely aware.  A little farther down you’ll read why.

FebShell2This month though, more than the others, has come and gone with little hindsight awareness of how I spent my time.  I know I enjoyed each day and meditated at the start of most.  There was time spent at the horse rescue, with my hospice patient and her husband, celebrating my husband’s birthday, exercising, reading and other assorted mundane activities of daily living.  And I spent quite a bit of time with my dear friend who’s living each one of her days with a keen awareness of the cancer in her body and wondering what that will ultimately mean.  Talk about awareness of life!

Mostly what I feel these days is appreciation for my health, my life and everything in it.  Turns out that my age has something to do with that.  Research shows that wisdom and a sense of well-being grows as we age, with the middle-aged brain reaching its peak potential in those areas.  In fact that research shows us 50 somethings to be happier in this decade than others.  You can find out details in Barbara Strauch’s breezy read called “The Secret Life Of the Grown-Up Brain”   She covers health and medicine for the New York Times and has written other books on health related subjects.  You can hear a lecture from her here.

It’s soothing to know that as we age our brains respond less to negative stimuli and, according to Strauch’s book, lean towards accentuating the positive as an almost automatic reflex.  I like that.

Barbara Allen

Barbara Allen

I saw it in action in early February while attending a lecture by Barbara Allen who, at age 71, recently completed more than 2100 miles of the Appalachian Trail.  Alone with a 30 pound back pack.  She told us that her friends tried to dissuade her from the solo hike by pointing out all the potential dangers for an, ahem, older lady hiking alone.  She told them, and us, that she’d rather die doing something she loved than be paralyzed by fear and alone in her house.  That’s quite a case of accentuating the positive, wouldn’t you say?

You can read a story about her here.

And see some photos from her six month adventure here.

She was a captivating woman who inspires me to continue hiking, though I doubt I’ll ever do a solo expedition like that.  I’ll continue to succumb to my paranoia about being eaten by wild animals and attacked by scary people.

But I do live my life my way albeit on a less grand scale.  Even before I started this awareness project I’ve known that after a finite amount of time my experience as a human being will be over.  And the older I get the faster the time seems to fly.  Instead of my whole life looming ahead of me like in my 20s, now I hope to get 25 or 30 healthy, vibrant years under my belt before whatever’s next comes next.

What I know today, different from a few years ago, is that making a connection with life, many forms of life, is what draws meaning for me now.

So long February.  May March continue to bring health, happiness and a peaceful brain.

And you?  How did you spend February?

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JanShell1This month’s shell is pristine enough to be sold in a beach souvenir shop instead of where I found it, lying among other scattered shell fragments on a beach somewhere in Florida.  Shelling is a favorite past-time for tourists in Florida, for locals too I think.  It’s what I seem to do when walking the beach with my eyes glued to the sand to avoid stepping on sharp things.  I can’t help but pick up pretty shells to later put in one of the decorative bowls in my house.

FullBowlShellsThis one came from a specific bowl that I filled with 12 shells, each one signifying one month of life.  My intention is to stay aware of each month so I can appreciate the relationship of time and my life.  With this one gone, there are eight months left to this particular year.  When looked at that way, it becomes rather glaring that my days of life continue to tick away.  My how a year goes by quickly.  And what do I do with that time?

 January, was occupied by friends, mostly, and if not being with them then thinking about them.  Maybe that’s because of the underlying thread of death and dying that confronted me this month.  Of course there was my ongoing hospice work, but also a very dear man I know dropped dead suddenly, and a different very important friend is facing health challenges that threaten her longevity.  During times of losing someone or potentially losing someone the importance of relationships take center stage.  Or rather, threatening times make you realize how important relationships really are.  When facing death people don’t wish they’d worked harder or longer hours.  They tend to lament the amount of time spent with people they love.  So I’m taking time with good friends while I still live in blissful ignorance of my eventual demise.

Marilyn&MeFor starters there was Marilyn, a friend who dates back to early childhood.  Was I five when we first played together?  She lived two houses down from us and her family was my second family.  I showed up every Christmas morning, as early as my mother would allow, sometimes in my pjs to catch everyone opening their presents.  There was always one for me and later I’d asked if I could stay for dinner.  Never knew about proper etiquette back then.  Actually, I practically lived at Marilyn’s house – spent several school day afternoons each week there, summer vacations at the beach with her family (mine never took vacations), family picnics, many family dinners and countless overnights whispering the nights away together.  Her house was my escape hatch when family wars in mine became overbearing.  Now Marilyn says we’re better than sisters.  I have to agree, and it started … 50 years ago?  Oy vey!

rainbow01Marilyn is facing a serious health challenge now; it might be the fight of her life – for her life.  She lives in Florida and though I’m in Tennessee the distance is not keeping us from our necessary friendship.  She needs me and I need her; I’ve always needed her.  And we’ll get through this together, one way or another.  The first week of this month was spent at her house just when we received her mind numbing diagnosis.  Serendipity?

And then I came home to a text message from a former colleague and friend with the news about Jerry, how his wife discovered him the next morning and surmised he died in his sleep.  59 years old.  Friends, family and colleagues were stupefied by the news.  Say what?  Really?  How the hell … ?  And now Facebook is littered with photos of him and memories galore.  His wife, shell shocked.  And yet – what a way to go, huh?  One day you’re here living your life – and he lived his with gusto – and the next day it’s all over.  No pain, no suffering, no dreadful diagnosis that makes you evaluate your life.  If I got to choose, I’d make sure I enjoyed the living while the living was good – then checked out, Jerry’s way.

Well I do get to choose – at least the first half of the equation.  I do have the power to enjoy my life, love my friends and family and live with no regrets.  And so far – I’m right on target…

best_friends_sketch_by_0ouo0-d45uu73Which brings me to Judie.  She and I worked together many years ago in Pittsburgh during our radio days.  She was a reporter I was a producer and we were tight friends.  35 years later we still are – though we’ve lived separately in a few different cities since then.  Still do – she in California, me in Tennessee.  But when we catch up it’s as though our last conversation was yesterday.  Thanks to Facebook we stay in touch and just had one of our catch up phone calls the other day.  We talked about needing to get together soon and play because … you just never know, now do you?

I have a couple very dear friends here at home that I haven’t seen in a while – they moved recently and have become caught  up in their lives like I have in mine.  But that’s not a good excuse especially since we now live five minutes apart.

OK then – February will bring time together with them.

What have you done with your life in January?

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Marilyn&Me1My dear friend may have just been given a treasured gift or the worst nightmare of her life – depending on her attitude.   She received the kind of news that none of us ever wants to hear.  The majority of us approach each day with a nonchalant assumption that we have infinite tomorrows.  And she’s certainly no different in that she gets to live her life and someday die.  Marilyn2The difference between her life and mine is that her lifespan now has a calendar attached while I still exist in blissful ignorance of my last day.  Though she doesn’t really know either, she is aware of medical statistics that place the odds of living a long, healthy life in my favor and not hers.

Marilyn has metastatic pancreatic cancer that’s now in her liver too.  With a cocktail of chemotherapy drugs doctors might be able to keep the cancer in check for months, possibly years if she joins the small percentage of people who do.  And time will tell, assuming her tolerance to the drugs goes “reasonably well” (doctor parlance for “manageable side effects”).

While the clock is ticking Marilyn can live each day to its fullest, prioritizing her life in a way that few of us ever do.   I’ve put myself in Marilyn’s shoes, hypothetically, and here are the questions I’m asking myself …

Am I living my life the way I want to?  If not, what do I need to change?

            Who are the important people in my life I need to spend time with?

            Who are the people I need to forgive or ask for their forgiveness?

            What do I obsess about that I need to shed?

            Is there a dream I need to pursue before time is gone?

            Are there places on earth I’ve always wanted to visit?

            What is truly important to me?

            What do I need to stop doing?

What should I start doing?

            How often to I appreciate the specialness of each mundane day?

Where do I find joy?

Marilyn:BobAnswering those questions can be gifts to all of us, including Marilyn.  The key, then, is to change our lives accordingly, if necessary, so we can truly live out our days and not sleep walk through them.  Those of us who live in mystery of the end rarely take time to appreciate the daily spoils of life.

Meanwhile, my answers to those questions are still percolating around my system.  But I’m grateful for the wake-up call and send Marilyn ongoing wishes for healing while she processes those questions too.

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christmas 2007

christmas 2007 (Photo credit: paparutzi)

The small condo is loaded to capacity with family members who live scattered down the south-east coast but are now reunited for Christmas.  Their presents are stacked under the tree in an arc that protrudes well into the traffic lane between the living and dining rooms.  There’s no choice but to pass single file around the mound or to step carefully above the lowest packages stacked.  And there is a lot of movement between the two rooms seeing that the food is in one and the TV and seating in the other.

In the crowd are twin babies whose smallest moves transfixes all eyes on them.  There is lots of ahhing and oohing over the infants by relatives who are either meeting them for the first time or have waited weeks for the special occasion.  The family has waited a long time for these babies to be born and they are most definitely the stars of the show.

SantaHatMy husband and I were invited to share the celebration because this family’s patriarch is caregiver to my hospice patient.  I call her my patient because I volunteer my time in her home.  But  I’m not a medical person and she and I have no relationship and have never shared a conversation.  Her brain has been ravaged by Alzheimer’s and her basic functions of breathing, eating and sleeping is what defines her aliveness these days.  She’s confined to a bed and is even blind now.  Nobody knows how much or how little she understands of her world and her family.  She’s been living like this for years, sustained mostly by her husband and through visits by various hospice professionals.  My role is to give her husband time out of the house to do as he pleases.  And we’ve maintained this routine for close to two years.   My relationship is with the husband who, for me, embodies the meaning of “noble” and who ranks close to the top of my “most admired” list of people.

Almost a decade ago his wife received her lethal diagnosis.  He promised to care for her for the rest of her life and never waivers a moment on that pledge even though it renders him housebound  until someone can relieve his vigil for a few precious hours.  He’s lived like this for years and there’s no forecast of how much longer this lifestyle will continue.  He and I visit once a week but the effects of his selflessness lingers with me.

PartyHatChristmasToday he’s decided to have her join the party.  After-all she’s a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother to everyone gathered.  He didn’t like the idea of her languishing in bed while everyone was carrying on.  So into the wheelchair she is placed (with great effort) and rolled into the living room where all the action is taking place.  Her husband plops into the chair next to her, and with his arm around her shoulder, tells her everyone who’s there. He feeds her.  He opens presents for her.  “Shows” them to her.  Tells her how pretty everything is.  And each daughter and grand-daughter come to hug and kiss her, wishing her a Merry Christmas.  One of them brings the babies and touches their fingers to her arms to say hi.  She hadn’t met them, in fact nobody knows if she understood that her grandson’s wife had given birth.  But none of that matters.  They talk to her as though she’s still a vibrant member of the family and its matriarch.

Such love and devotion with nothing given in return.  I’ve never heard the word “burden” uttered.  And there’s nothing about their actions that remotely hints that.

Merry Christmas to that family.  May those among us who are healthy realize it and be grateful for it.

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It’s a good thing I voted early, otherwise I’d be hobbling into the polling station with a very stiff and cranky lower back.  It’s much wiser and safer to be nursing it with some ibuprofen and a heating pad with hopes that it feels better tomorrow.

No barn duty today either although it’s my morning to help with the horses at the Rescue.  Tuesdays come quickly and they’re usually greeted with a healthy back and ambitious attitude to feed, turn out and clean stalls. That’s actually what may have aggravated my back last week during some pretty heavy lifting in some very dirty stalls.

My back has been in great shape for years, thanks to regular exercise and yoga.  But with the cooler weather here and maybe a case of nerves leading up to the election, my back has decided to take control out of my hands and leave it up to fate.

Our bodies have a way of letting us know when it’s time to let go.  To let go of controlling things over which we have no control.

Lesson of the day and I’m listening.  Finally.  It’s our jobs to discern which things we can control, and the wisdom to let go of the others.

What is control, anyway? 

Is it the need to fulfill our expectations? 

To have our lives unfold according to our plans? 

To be right?  

To continue our personal delusions?  

To assume we know best? 

Yes, I think so.

Being a Type A personality, (actually, I like to call myself a recovering Type A), I’ve always needed to control my destiny.  My career put me in constant touch with news and pop culture and my leadership roles allowed me to be the gatekeeper I needed to be.  I had influence over content, budgets, direction, staffs and the masses.

Perfect. 

As my bank account grew with my advancements, so did my sense of personal freedom.  Money has always meant freedom to me, rather than the acquisition of “stuff,” though I accrued that too.  And with that freedom came a sense of control over my destiny.  Oops, there’s that word control again.

If you think my childhood had anything to do with that, you’d be right.  But that’s another subject.  (Or, if you know anything about the Enneagram model, and my type number, you might also realize control issues are in line with that too.)

Anyway, I digress.  Back to control…

These days the issue of control is one that I’m working to live without.  I’ve consciously started to live my life without assuming leadership functions.  Passion may describe a defining personal attribute, but that doesn’t have to lead to controlling an outcome.  A Buddhist tenet is to do what you must and let go of the outcome.  To not be so attached to the activity and its motivation, but, rather to do what’s right and give the rest up to the wind.  What will be, will be.  I’ve done my part, now let it go.

That’s what I think my back has been telling me for a few days now.  I’ve voted, I’ve been an activist for principles that guide me.  Now, just relax and let it be what it will be.

Thank you, back.

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We say yes, he insists no.  What’s a child to do?

Right now my 89 year old father is in a rehab unit hoping to re-gain the strength of his body.  His legs don’t work that well anymore, particularly his left leg that’s grown weaker in the 20 years following his stroke.  The same is true of his arms; the right does the lion’s share of work while the left hangs limp at his side.  He desperately wants to return home where he was about a month ago before this current crisis took place.  There he was able to move ever so slowly using his walker and also to perform the daily rituals of living.  Now he can’t get in or out of bed by himself, bathing and dressing himself is impossible and he requires the help of an aid to move even more slowly and unsteadily in his walker for yet shorter distances than before.  And yet he’s convinced himself that he’ll get strong enough to go home and continue life as before.  It doesn’t look promising, though he is improving.

The food there is good; we’ve tasted a bit of all his meals as they’re delivered.  He’s receiving excellent care, has a private room and is in a very cheerful, bright community of people with a similar cultural background as his.  He’s been accepted into their long term care household which is where we want him to live.  He refuses, complaining about the regimented lifestyle and business-like attitude of some of the nurses and aids.  They have schedules to adhere to regardless of whether he agrees.  He likens it to life in the military some 70 years ago and says he wouldn’t wish it on his worst enemy.

We’re in a stalemate.  Once his physical therapy is finished we’ll have to make a decision.  What do we use as our guide?  Our judgement, as his children, about what’s best for him?  Or his emotional insistence on the way he wants to live out the rest of his life?

Based on history, we think that if he goes home he’ll “fire” the aids after a short period of time because he thinks they’re no longer necessary.  It’s happened before.  He hates spending the money; he considers it wasteful.  He wants to die with his money intact “just in case.”  “Just in case” what?  we probe.  “I don’t know” is the answer.  He can’t grasp the idea that NOW is the” just in case” he’s been saving for.

Life at home consists of sitting solitary in a room and watching TV all day.  His only company is my sister when she returns from work and my other sister when she visits.  On many Thursdays he hobbles to his car and drives to meet his buddies for lunch at the nearby deli.  He shouldn’t, but he does.  I doubt he’ll be cleared by a doctor to continue driving.  He’s convinced we’re wrong.  He must keep his car.

When I was a kid I went to hebrew school and took piano lessons because my parents insisted they were beneficial.  I disagreed.  It didn’t matter.  I went and I practiced — for years.  And years.  And years.  Now, as an adult, I’m a richer person for the experiences.

He doesn’t see the analogy.  He sees himself as the parent who knows best.  We disagree.  Who wins?  And at what cost?

What do you say?  What would you do?

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