Oatmeal or Death

This is the story of the health scare that set me on a path toward a cleaner diet.

Imagine one day you feel your throat closing up on you and pain in your chest. You are growing dizzy and weak. Your left arm begins to tingle and go numb and your hand starts turning blue. Your blood pressure is skyrocketing. You think you’re having a heart attack.

This is exactly what happened to me a little over a year ago. My first thought was A heart attack?! I’m not even 40; I’m too young for this! And then I thought about my grandparents with their quadruple and quintuple bypasses. I thought of my dear uncle who suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack at 45. And another uncle who suffered multiple strokes in his 50’s. And then I felt really, really stupid. My next thought was Shit! I’m in trouble!

These symptoms came on toward the end of my work day, and naturally I didn’t leave the office early. I worked a full day, quietly worried, not even saying a word to my husband who shares an office with me. The symptoms worsened on the drive to my kids’ school. By the time I arrived for pickup my left arm was mostly numb and bluish in color. I was totally freaking out. Silently.

My daughter’s Girl Scout troop was meeting that afternoon at the school to discuss the upcoming cookie season. I sat there politely through the whole meeting, nodding along, quietly wondering whether I was having an acute cardiac event, my head feeling like it was about to pop off my neck, my arm numb, hoping I wouldn’t expire right there in front of all those girl scouts and their moms. Because you know, dying right there in front of all of those people would be so embarrassing.

By the time I got home I was in a full bore linear panic. I grabbed the electric blood pressure cuff a friend had given my husband as a gag gift at his 30th birthday party. My blood pressure was at 160/110. It would reach 180/112 before the night was over. Pretty dang high for someone my age. High enough, I would learn, for blood vessels to spontaneously rupture. I explained what was going on to my husband, and we made arrangements to have our brother-in-law babysit while we went to the hospital. I swallowed a baby aspirin, gave each of my children a long, tender hug and headed to the emergency room. I paused at the threshold and took a long look at my kids on my way out the door, hoping this would not be the last time I would lay eyes on them.

I would be in the emergency room until the wee hours of the morning, getting screened and scanned and stuck with an IV, my husband by my side. He joked that I’d do anything for a date night. I laughed that this would be our most expensive night out ever. The good news was I wasn’t having a heart attack or a stroke, and there were no blockages in my vascular system.

I would have follow-up appointments over the the next few days. My PCP and cardiologist would eventually settle on a diagnosis of “essential hypertension.” Which basically means you have high blood pressure, you’re pretty much stuck with it, and it isn’t likely to get much better without the help of medication.

The morning after my big scare I stood in my kitchen, pondering what to make for breakfast. I stared at the container of my husband’s oatmeal, a breakfast choice I had always found revolting. I stared at it some more, pondering the cholesterol-reducing properties I’d heard about. This is what it comes down to, I thought. Do you want to live or die? It’s oatmeal or death.

I want to live, I thought. I want to be here to raise my kids. I want to meet my grandchildren. My great-grandchildren. These are the driving thoughts that have given me the motivation to make sweeping, difficult changes in my life since then.

My trip to the ER that night a year ago was the beginning of a journey toward taking control of my health and learning to take better care of myself. Since then, I’ve had some remarkable successes from the changes I’ve made. I still have lots to learn, and a long way to go.

health scare cleaner diet

The oatmeal I managed to choke down the morning after my trip to the hospital was a symbol of the changes I resolved to make to get my body back on track. Diet, exercise, meditation, everything. They say it’s easier to change a man’s religion than to change his eating habits. After giving it a try over the past year, that adage sure holds true for me. Some friends I’ve talked to seemed to make these changes effortlessly; or at least they don’t bemoan them as I tend to. For me it’s been anything but effortless.

It’s also really hard to make big changes alone. I’m lucky that I have the full support of my husband, who has enthusiastically gobbled down every crazy food experiment I have served up. He volunteered to go off coffee when I told him I was quitting. He didn’t complain a bit when I told him I was switching us off cow’s milk. He even stood by my side through my first cleanse, which involved 21 days with 2 liquid meals per day (plus one solid). Now, that is love!

Our kids had a tough time at first, though. “Why can’t we just eat the things we used to?” they asked at one point. I explained that for some people, what they eat determines how healthy they are. That learning a healthier way to eat is something I have to do in order to be able to be the kind of mom I want to be for them (an alive one). Since then, they’ve gone along with trying new foods amazingly well. Every once in a while my youngest asks for “real” milk. But mostly they take pride in sharing meals as a family that are healthy for all of us.

My hope is that writing this blog will help strengthen my resolve to keep moving forward on this path. Because trust me. I need all the help I can get. There are plenty of days I just want to throw up my hands and bury my head in a bag of sriracha potato chips.

So tell me, have you ever had a defining moment like my trip to the ER? Something that made you sit up, take notice, and resolve to make a change in your life?

Have you ever been afraid for your life and too embarrassed to speak up about it?

What makes you want to keep moving toward a healthier tomorrow?

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