Saturday, June 23, 2007

A Life Under Pressure

When it comes to health, I have been relatively blessed. Some folks struggle with diseases and medical conditions which are deadly, or so deblillitating as to make a normal life almost impossible. Up to this point, my primary medical problems have pertained to dental health, and to occasional incidents or episodes (such as the time when I broke my leg on my 12th birthday while roller skating, or the time when I got pneumonia and a kidney infection when I was in the 11th grade in high school).

By "incidents" or "episodes", I don't mean to suggest that there was no pain involved. My broken leg was excruciatingly painful. Ditto for some of the dental problems I've experienced.

I also had a recurring problem (for four or five years, at least) with bursitis in my right hand, following an episode in high school when I broke that hand doing something stupid. At one point, I thought that the bursitis would be a problem for the rest of my life, but it eventually disappeared. I was extremely grateful for that fact, since it had hindered my piano playing and typing in a major way.

The pneumonia wasn't exactly painful, just incredibly uncomfortable, in terms of the extreme chills which I experienced in spite of the fact that it was a warm spring afternoon.

Eventually, whether it took weeks or months or years, most of my previous serious medical problems healed or cleared up to the point that life got back to normal. I still remember the salt pills they gave to me in order to cause me to sweat enough to cause the fever to break.

I find myself thinking about my medical history today, because I just had an experience on Thursday which shook me up a bit. I had gotten an appointment at the Illinois Eye Institute in order to have my eyes examined. My father was an optometrist, so he did all of my eye exams when I was young. But that's no longer an option, since he died in 1999.

I don't recall that Dad ever tested my blood pressure during any of his optometric exams. But things have changed in the optometric profession. Apparently, many optometrists now test blood pressure, because it's part of the procedure which enables them to detect eye diseases such as glaucoma. So they tested my blood pressure on Thursday. My score was 190/130. The manner in which the optometrist and his assistant responded to that information made me think that it was a very serious matter indeed. In fact, I had to sign a release acknowledging that the optometrist had recommended that I see a doctor immediately, and that I'd declined the opportunity to do so (mainly because of my financial situation).

I went out and looked for a book about hypertension, at the downtown bookstore which sells books to DePaul University students. I found a book entitled High Blood Pressure for Dummies. What I learned, from that book and other information sources, made me aware that I was going to have to start taking medication on a regular basis. I also realized that I was going to have to be more conscientious about limiting my consumption of things such as coffee, salt and other things which can increase one's blood pressure. And I'd need to try to get more exercise, even though I've never been extremely overweight.

(Drinking and smoking were not an issue, since I don't do those things anyway.)

Unlike a broken leg or a case of pneumonia, I get the impression that hypertension is something people often need to treat for the rest of their lives. At some point in the near future, I'll probably need to buy a blood pressure monitor and take regular readings. A good blood pressure monitor (the kind that automatically inflates and stores histories of one's readings) is about $100 or so.

I have a lot of items on my agenda, and having to spend part of my time focusing on treating and minimizing my hypertension is not my idea of fun. Having to limit my salt doesn't thrill me, either, because I almost never put salt on my food anyway. (About the only exception would be boiled eggs. And Mrs. Dash makes an excellent substitute for salt, I have found.) Most of the salt in my diet is coming from the fact that I eat out a lot at fast food places, which typically oversalt their food.

I've never understood that. Why can't they just put salt and pepper shakers on the table, and let their individual customers decide whether or not they want salt on their food? It would certainly increase their business to do so, since there are probably a lot of people who currently avoid eating there precisely because they don't want to aggravate their hypertension.

McDonald's is particularly bad about that. They put more salt on their fries than I would normally choose to use, even if hypertension wasn't an issue. I've never asked them if it was possible for them to serve unsalted fries, but I think I'm going to look into the matter now.

Knowledge of the fact that hypertension can put a person at increased risk for heart attacks and strokes is particularly sobering for me, since I know that my maternal grandfather had hypertension, and he died of a stroke (which followed a heart attack) at age 65. That's just 14 years older than I am now. When you're 14 years old, 14 years sounds like a long time. Not so when you're almost 51 years old, as I am.

But even though dying young could hinder my attempts to accomplish certain things in life, it's equally frightening (if not more so) to contemplate the degenerative diseases, such as glaucoma, which can be caused by hypertension. As a photographer and artist, I need my eyesight. For that matter, even those activities which don't pertain directly to visual art require the ability to see well. Musicians need to be able to see the computer screen, for example, in order to use programs such as Sonar or Finale. While it's true that musicians such as Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles have managed to play music in spite of their blindness, it's nevertheless true that blindness would be a real hindrance to almost any activity in which I wanted to be engaged. So I can't afford to take the matter lightly.

I'd appreciate your prayers.

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