66. Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

66. Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Shaping the New You

Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

Exercise should be regarded as tribute to the heart.
 ~Gene Tunney

“Wow,” the nurse exclaimed, staring at her lung-capacity spirometer. “You blew the top off this thing.”

“I work out.”

The tilt of her head and furrow in her brow said she didn’t understand why I was being prepped for open-heart surgery. I exercised most of my life and ate healthy foods, including lots of fiber, vegetables and fruits. But when you inherit the big three—diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease—knowing the warning signs of circulatory problems is as important as all the preventative health-care I’d done in the past.

Three weeks earlier, while running at my health club, an unfamiliar pain shot down my left arm. When I slowed, the pain eased. Denial is the first human reaction but the warning sign was clear. This could be the sign of a heart problem. I’d had my diabetes under strict control for 21 years. I’d tested and controlled my blood pressure, watched my diet, and was the ideal height and weight for my age. It was easy to say, “All I need is a little rest.”

A week later the same thing happened. I had no problem lifting the heavy weights, but when I ran on the track that pain reoccurred, shooting down my arm. It was time to schedule a treadmill test. Less than five minutes into the test, the doctor prepared me for an angiogram.

Four days before my 59th birthday, I had quadruple bypass surgery. My cardiologist and my surgeon were excellent and my recovery swift. When I visited my surgeon for a post-op checkup, he said, “You need to watch your cholesterol, saturated fats, diet and exercise, or I’ll be doing another one of these in three to four years.”

Anger rose in me, but common sense pushed it back down. My primary care physician knew my past history. My surgeon only knew what those arteries looked like when he’d performed the operation. I had to admit that before I was diagnosed with diabetes 21 years earlier, I didn’t care what I ate. I didn’t run or exercise like I should have.

“My cholesterol is normal, and my HDL is high,” I said. “I eat a strict diabetic diet and work out four to five times a week.”

He nodded, smiled, and said, “Keep it up.”

As the months went by, my wife, Pam, and I made a game plan for health improvement for both of us. My ordeal had been her ordeal as well. Sitting in the hospital’s waiting room wondering whether her husband would survive the operation wasn’t an experience she ever wanted to go through again. Neither did I. God and I had a little talk while I lay on that gurney before the operation, and I told Him I wanted to be around for my wife on our 60th wedding anniversary. Our plan was simple. We were going to do everything we could to live a healthy life.

Pam researched foods, fats, and sodium. Sodium was the only culprit we were abusing, and we made drastic cuts. We read the labels on canned food, buying low or no sodium products whenever possible.

My wife and I have always exercised together. Each of us has a different regimen for weights and body toning, but we worked the track together encouraging each other to go an extra lap or two.

It took me five years to regain the athletic prowess I’d had before the surgery. My doctor told me to be careful with any exercise that put stress on my sternum where the ribs were pulled apart, even after it was fully healed. It took a few years to figure out what I could do and what I should avoid. So weight training came back slowly. But cardio work, which I prefer to do on the indoor track, returned quickly. Within two months, I blew the top off that spirometer once again.

Today, I don’t try to run as fast as the 20-somethings. I don’t try to lift more weight than the 30-somethings. I find that doing more reps at lower weights is more beneficial to me than trying to lift heavier and heavier weights. I’m what they call an ectomorph. My tall slender body type doesn’t build massive muscles and now at a healthy sixty-seven years old, enjoying my work out is more important. So when chided by the younger guys with, “Come on, bro, drop down a few more plates on that machine.” I simply say, “Nope. I’m fine with this.”

If my workout achieves my personal goals, and I have the desire to keep coming back, I’m doing what’s right for me. I avoid that macho thing I have embedded in my psyche and use common sense.

My wife and I briskly walk uphill from our car to the athletic center—about a quarter mile. We work our own weight and limbering programs for 30 to 35 minutes, and then we hit the track together. I can obtain a great cardio workout without lapping her on the track. Instead, I stay beside her, and we talk and share our thoughts. I find the experience to be quite romantic. We’ll be celebrating our 45th wedding anniversary next year and romance is still in fashion. Take good care of your health; it is worth it.

Nine years have passed since that open-heart surgery. My exercise program is as good as or better than before the bypass. I’m very well educated on all the problems associated with diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. I may have inherited these conditions but I don’t have to be crippled by them. Ignorance isn’t bliss! Had I not exercised and known my body, I might have missed the warning signs. I might not have felt any pain, and my wife could have been a widow at age fifty-six.

I’ve never been back to my heart surgeon. He’s the best and I owe him my life. My cardiologist and my primary care physician are a different story. They keep testing how I’m doing with stress tests and physical exams. Could I need open-heart surgery again? Yes, with insulin-dependent diabetes the long-term effects keep adding up. But if I keep doing everything I can do, and medical science does everything it can do, an enjoyable life lies ahead of me.

My wife and I count our blessings every day. Retirement isn’t a death sentence. But if we hadn’t taken care of ourselves in our 40s and 50s, we might never have reached our 60s with the energy and joy of living we feel. As I finish this writing, it’s 11 o’clock on a Wednesday. I only have 45 minutes to clean off my desk and head out to the gym. The sun’s shining. The wind is a bit brisk. Pam and I are going to pick up our son on his lunch break and work out with him too.

~Bill Wetterman

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