My dad had a triple bypass when I was a first-year medical student, or M1 as we call it. I remember the months leading up to the day. My father was (and still is) a big hunter and I remember us walking through the woods and he’d have to stop, as he said, ‘to catch his breath’. Sometimes he’d even stop and act like there was something he wanted to look at or listen to there in the woods but we both knew he just couldn’t breathe and he had to stop. He’s like me and every other Mississippi man – when it comes to our health, we’re going to rationalize away and be in denial eventually to the point of crisis. As his shortness of breath got worse, he visited his family doc and a chest x-ray revealed fluid on his lungs which led to a visit to the cardiologist. Turns out it was his heart.
Your heart is the pump for your body, bringing blood in and pushing blood out. Ironically, my father worked as an electrician on pumps at a local paper mill! Anyway, his pump wasn’t working and fluid was backing up. I was in Jackson in medical school and getting most of these updates from my mom. When she said he would need open heart surgery, I rushed over to Meridian to see him. He was justifiably nervous and, interestingly, in that life crisis moment, as much as he loves hunting, he made me promise to sell all his guns to make sure my mother could pay the bills if he didn’t make it through surgery.
As they whisked him down the long, sterile hall towards the operating room, I settled into an uncomfortable chair, pulled out a highlighter and tried my darnedest to read Guyton and Hall’s Textbook of Medical Physiology and not think about my dad. The surgery and recovery yielded a couple of hiccups but ultimately he rebounded and has done reasonably well since that scare in 2003 although his heart is still not in great shape and he takes a potpourri of medications now to adjust for that. I look back and reflect on this life crisis for him. He loves hunting just about as much as the rhinestone cowboy loved rhinestones (another family story for another day)! In that moment, though, he was willing to give it all up to ensure the long term safety of his family. It got me thinking. Why does it take a crisis for us to flesh out and act on our highest priorities? This question is difficult to answer so, just ponder it for your own life – are you stuck in the everyday or are you looking at and prioritizing for the big picture?
As it turns out, that crisis was a turning point for me as well. It planted the seed of thinking what I could do for my family, present and future, to make sure I stay healthy to be there and provide for them. The answer is one word: prevention. My grandfather (my dad’s dad) died of a massive heart attack in his early 50’s. My father had open heart surgery at age 53. I knew the statistics. Genetically, I was at increased risk simply from the cards I was dealt. This, as we call it in the South, come to Jesus moment for my father turned out to have the same effect on me. I was starting to learn more about medicine and I picked up on other factors – like that my dad was diagnosed with diabetes eight years prior. How he then acquired what we call metabolic syndrome. How all of this was a predictable unfolding revelation leading up to his open heart surgery. I realize now that while sitting in that hospital with my yellow highlighter, waiting (and praying) for him to get out of surgery, I made a vow to myself to learn more about prevention. I didn’t want to get to the point my father or grandfather was in their 50’s.
Through years of study, I’ve found four big areas that impact your health and wellness. Let me say this as an aside – it’s not just one thing. Yes, diet is important but it’s not the only thing. Yes, sleep is important but it’s not this only thing. And exercise and supplements and so on. Your body is beautifully complicated and anyone selling a one-size-fits-all or do-this-one-thing approach to health and wellness is someone to stay away from. The four key areas of importance are physical, mental, nutritional and hormonal health. Each area has several subcategories. To name a few, physical health includes exercise and sleep. Mental health includes areas like stress management, time management, self-confidence, and mind-body medicine. Healthy eating and supplements fall under nutrition. And there are several hormones that make a big difference in your health.
I started my own journey with consistent exercise. I was able to maintain it over time because it flat out made me feel better and I had more energy. What was your starting point to better health and wellness? What will it be starting this week? This weekly column will address key topics within those four health and wellness categories to move you towards a better lifestyle. It is not a door. It’s a road. I’m passionate about the journey! Will you walk the road with me?!
Dr. Thomas is a board-certified physician who operates Complete Health Integrative Wellness Clinic and Thomas Urology Clinic in Starkville, Mississippi.
This newspaper column is for informational purposes only and is, under no circumstances, intended to constitute medical advice or to create or continue a physician-patient relationship. If you have a medical emergency, you should immediately seek care from your nearest emergency room, and if you have specific health questions, you should consult your own physician.