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Friday, Sep. 19, 2014

The real "General Hospital"

Posted Monday, December 6, 2010, at 6:35 AM

The doctor's lips were moving, but most of the words went right past me.

As soon as he said "stroke," I didn't hear another word for several minutes, so I missed "possible" and "mild."

The doctor might as well have been talking to a department-store mannequin.

My paternal grandmother had a stroke in her early 60s. When we'd waved goodbye to her before leaving for my father's assignment in Libya, she was healthy. When we returned a little more than two years later, her speech was garbled and she had trouble walking. For a little while, I was afraid of her because I thought I might catch "the stroke."

I gradually realized her affliction wasn't catching, of course. In subsequent years, we didn't see her often and she died just a few weeks after I graduated from high school, following another, more serious stroke. Some of the birthday cards she sent me are in a trunk downstairs; it wasn't until much later that I realized, looking at one of those cards and seeing the tiny, cramped writing, what an effort it had been for her to write "I love you. Grandma."

The doctor kept talking, but I was still falling down the rabbit hole.

My mother had several strokes in her 80s and died in 2006, but not before she suffered for two years with severely reduced mobility and struggled for every word she spoke. She also had difficulty swallowing and was placed on a mostly-liquid diet, which she hated. During her initial hospitalization, she was clearly puzzled, though unable to express it verbally, about the lack of solid food. When my sister explained it to her, she blurted out the first words she'd said in several days, "I'll starve!"

My mother's sister, who was also my godmother, was the kind of person who was always on the go, always had projects to work on, family parties and church events to organize. Near the end of her life, she was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- Lou Gehrig's disease -- so it seemed a mercy when a stroke ended her life in mere minutes in 2004.

And they are not the only ones -- two more of my mother's six siblings have died of strokes in the last ten years or so and both of them lived a relatively long and difficult life coping with their loss of speech and mobility.

As I finally stopped spiraling into something like panic, I began to hear the doctor again, and was heartened by his positive review of my numbers -- cholesterol, blood pressure, weight, glucose level, no smoking for almost two years, lots of daily exercise -- all of which work in my favor.

That doesn't mean I'm not still scared to death by what appears to have happened to me last weekend. At this point, I don't have a positive diagnosis that I actually had a stroke, mild or otherwise, but I have not been able to see a neurologist for confirmation. (I'll write more about that ridiculous situation at a later time.)

For now, it doesn't appear that I've lost any of my cognitive abilities and I can walk and talk normally. As my husband told the doctor, "It'll take more than something like this to shut her up, I guarantee you."

I've learned a very good lesson in the last week. And like every other person who's had a health scare, I want to share what I have learned.

You can do everything right for your health and still not escape serious illness. That does not mean, as some would have it, that you might as well continue to smoke, to overeat, to drink too much and to do it all while sitting on the couch, absentmindedly channel-flipping your way through reality shows.

Quite the contrary.

It means that although you cannot outrun your genetics, you should still do everything you can to stay healthy. There is no way of knowing which direction your health will go, but it's much better to go in any direction with those important health numbers on YOUR side.


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Kathy Fairchild received a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration in 1986 from Marycrest College, Davenport, Iowa. She is also a 2003 graduate of the paralegal program at New York University. She moved to Marshall in 2006, following a career of more than 30 years with the world's largest farm equipment manufacturer. She is an Air Force brat and grandmother of four.
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