I felt a tightness in my chest that started in my back and moved forward. A couple of Tums didn’t do anything. I had been hospitalized with chest pain in the past and it had always turned out to be nothing. Gastritis. Anxiety. Never cardiac. But when the pain moved into my jaw, I told my husband I wanted to go to the emergency room.
They took me right away for an EKG and blood work, and gave me a gown to change into. The woman drawing blood was irritated that she couldn’t find a vein. For my part, I thought she was the worst blood-drawer ever. She poked and prodded the crook of my right arm, then my left. She was neither gentle, nor apologetic about her roughness. Finally she inserted a heparin lock on the outside of my left forearm since that was about the only place a vein could be found large enough and close enough to the surface to produce results. I changed into the gown, and was sent back into the waiting room because there were no emergency beds.
Because of the flu epidemic, there were masks available, and hand sanitizer dispensers at every door. I put on a mask and sat down again in the waiting room.
Five. Hours. Later. It was pretty clear that they didn’t think I was having a heart attack. But I did have plenty of time to think about the predicament in which I found myself.
How did I get like this, anyway?
I never dreamed in a million years that I would ever be fat. When I was younger, I could eat anything I wanted and never gain any weight. Not that I ate much. When I was in high school, I weighed about 88 pounds dripping wet. When I got up to 93 pounds, I went to Elaine Powers Figure Salon to whip myself back into shape. After all, I was only five feet tall. Even a pound or two made a huge difference in how my clothes fit.
40 years and nearly 100 pounds later, I didn’t know whether that made me want to laugh or cry. I was a perfect size 4 – ring size, shoe size, clothing size. Then I fell in love with a talented amateur Italian chef and learned to love to eat. Specifically pasta, bread, potatoes, cheeses, Italian pastries, and more – all in vast quantities.
“Mangia!” they said. “It’s delicious!” they said. And it was. By the time we got married, I was already up to 100 pounds. Then I got pregnant. After that, I never even saw 125 again. I gained another 40 pounds with my second child – which is all the more ridiculous when you consider that he was very premature and weighed only 2 lbs 13 oz. I did lose a fair amount of the weight, but I never saw 150 again.
Three of our parents, and a few grandparents passed away in the early 1990’s. After my mom passed away, my elderly aunt came to live with us, and after a few years became very difficult to deal with. We later learned that she had Alzheimer’s, but at this point I didn’t know that, and was killing myself trying to keep too many plates in the air. I was pretty active looking after two small children, caring for my aunt, homeschooling, gardening, and walking. But I was depressed, too. And I would find myself increasingly dealing with stress by eating. I would find myself looking in the refrigerator without the slightest idea how I got there.
My dad had died years earlier of a massive heart attack when I was 26 and he was 80. He also had atherosclerosis, and had flown to Texas when I was a little girl to be treated for circulatory issues by Dr. Michael DeBakey, the renowned cardiovascular surgeon. His autopsy revealed that he had already had two other massive heart attacks that nobody had ever even known about! All we knew was that he had never missed a day of work, and that he had heartburn a lot. He also had sleep apnea, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when somewhere along the way, I also developed sleep apnea. My snoring was legendary long before I ever gained weight. But there is no doubt it was exacerbated by my weight problem. Ever in denial, I didn’t follow up after my sleep study. Who wanted to wear one of those stupid masks like old people? But the people from the sleep lab called me and said they didn’t think I understood the seriousness of my condition. During the night of testing, I had stopped breathing 213 times for at least 30 seconds. I started seeing a lung specialist and using a CPAP machine immediately.
But I still didn’t do anything about my weight. Hospitalizations, dangerous sleep apnea, a 50 lb weight gain, and familial heart disease were not enough to motivate me to change. Seriously? I suppose I came by it honestly, with a father who evidently had massive heart attacks while not missing any work and a mother who did not bother to mention that she had Stage 4 lung cancer until 18 days before she died. Meanwhile, that 50 lb. weight gain crept up to 90 lbs. It was time to stop pretending I was not obese, and dangerously so.
The person with the clipboard called my name, finally. I went into the emergency room only to discover that they had a bed, but not a room. I hoisted myself up onto the bed with great difficulty and found myself out of breath. I briefly pondered that my paternal grandfather had died of endocarditis when he was about my age. I had always managed to avoid thinking about that too much because it was 1912 and he didn’t have the benefit of penicillin. But for the first time ever, it dawned on me that 58 was way too young to die.
After the hospital sent me home – again – with nothing wrong, I couldn’t sleep, so I ended up on the computer. As I clicked around websites trying to find something to distract me, I remembered that the day before I had downloaded a PDF I had purchased from Amazon called “Inspire Your Fit Behavior,” as a favor to a friend. I had decided I could use some inspiration, but wondered if this book would actually inspire me. Health scares certainly hadn’t worked. Neither had lectures from doctors, self-help books or advice from well-meaning friends. I figured I couldn’t be less inspired than I already was.
“Inspire Your Fit Behavior” is a collection of inspiring stories of people who overcame various health challenges and regained a level of fitness they never thought possible. It is a video ebook, which means that a video about each person who tells their story is embedded right into it. At the beginning, it talked a lot about “forever athletes.” I started to click off and find something else to do, since I was never an athlete in any sense of the word. But I had promised to read the ebook, so I scrolled back to the beginning and something in the table of contents caught my eye.
“Realize it is possible to reverse your decline.” As I read on, “The Admiral” was a man who had an “aha!” moment when he couldn’t get up off the floor when playing with his grandchildren. I couldn’t bend over any more to tie my shoes, and I was starting to have trouble even getting out of my easy chair. And my knees were hurting all the time – I dreaded going up and down the stairs, or down to the basement to do laundry. As I read on I saw that when he contacted a personal trainer, the trainer had him doing “baby steps,” like lifting a stick, pushing away from the wall, or stepping up and down a few inches. After a year of working with the trainer, his fitness improved and so did his attitude toward fitness. And it all started with “baby steps.” About a week later, I saw a post on the Fit After Fifty blog called “What’s the single best thing we can do for our health?” It is one of those great videos where someone is narrating and someone is illustrating on a white board in triple time. And the conclusion was that exercising just 30 minutes a day would result in significant improvements in my health.
I don’t have time to schedule sessions with a trainer right now, but I have a treadmill in my house and I can still walk! So I started getting up early every morning and walking on the treadmill, building up gradually to a mile, then a mile and a half in about a half hour. The time passes pretty quickly because I also listen to my daily Bible reading on my iPad while I am walking. I also discovered that I feel a lot better when I eat less, and eat more protein. In just three weeks, I have lost about 7 pounds, and my clothes are starting to fit better. I don’t think I look any different, but I can tell that there has been progress because of small changes, like my wedding ring not being too tight any more. My knees don’t hurt all the time either, and I no longer dread going up and down the stairs!
I know I have a long way to go, but yesterday I knew something fundamental had changed when I discovered I wanted a couple of blackberries instead a bagel with cream cheese. While his testimony is not the only thing that set me in the right direction, I am really glad The Admiral’s story was included in that ebook, and that I owed my friend the favor of reading it.