Archive for the ‘health’ Category

Yesterday, I was sitting in the hallway of the emergency ward at Royal Columbian Hospital, waiting for a bed for a patient, when word came through that George Abbott, the BC Minister of Healthy, was expected through on a tour. “Trip him up and tell him you need a bed right now,” a technician whispered to me. That was about the only reaction to the news that I saw – and it wasn’t particularly busy, for once. But the episode strikes me as a good example of why voter apathy and cynicism are increasing.

First came Abbott and the member of the hospital board who was guiding him on the tour. For all I know, the board member is caring and dedicated, and has brought the hospital millions of dollars through his scrappy advocacy, but to my eye he and Abbott looked two of a kind. They both looked like middle-aged men used to authority. The only difference was that the board member was about fifteen years older.

Behind them came a woman with a hospital badge. From her stance and her dress, I suspect she was lower in the ranks than a board member. Behind her came three or four other men, non-descript except that they were younger and junior to Abbott. Possibly, one or two were bodyguards, but at least two had a clerical look. Bringing up the rear was a twentysomething man carrying a clipboard. He didn’t know what to do with himself and stood in a corner shuffling from one foot to the other, but, boy, he knew his job – nothing was going to make him let go of that clipboard.

The board member stopped the procession at the front desk. The nurses and the doctors nearby did not look up, and nobody introduced them. The board member explained what the list of patients on the white board meant, noting that those with an “A” beside their name had found a bed elsewhere in the hospital. This fact may have been meant to impress Abbott with the need for more funding, but, if so, it like failed. The minister only looked polite.

Then the board member invited the minister to see something in the back of the ward. Half the entourage hovered in place, while the other half straggled after the board member and the minister.

I don’t know what they went to look at, but in less than three minutes they were leaving, saying something about their schedule. All the while, the staff kept at their paperwork, or wandered off to see to patients. Clearly, they were unimpressed, and had no belief that the visit might make their lives easier. Nor did Abbott make any attempt to engage any of them.

Watching the parade and reflecting on the three hours I had been sitting beside a gurney, I had to wonder why anybody bothered with the whole episode. The health minister and his entourage could have seen nothing substantial in the time they spent in the ward, and must have learned less. Nor did they seem to want to. I would say they had done it for the publicity, except the only member of the press nearby was me, and I don’t cover politics. So what was the point?

The only conclusion I could reach – and, I think, the only one any witness could reach – was that the hospital tour was made because someone, whether the minister or some member of his entourage concerned with communications imagined that going through the motions would look good. How, or to whom, the person responsible probably couldn’t say, but the thing was done.

But I wonder if the tour did anything except to bring the routine of governing into contempt. After the tour had exited, you could feel the staff relax, but apart from a few raised eybrows and one shaken head, everyone had grown too cynical about such efforts to bother venturing any remark whatsoever. The tour was something inflicted on everyone, and, when it was over, people could get back to their routine.

[Update — A few weeks ago, Abbott was dismissing the claims of overcrowding made by a surgeon as “alarmist.” This pre-judgment, I suppose, goes a long way to explaining what I saw. I suspect that he wanted to say that he had personally investigated, but was determined not to let the facts get in the way of his position.]

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The Courage of the Early Morning is the name of the biography of World War I flying ace Billy Bishop that was written by his son. It refers to the characteristics needed to get up in the dark and cold and risk your life after too little sleep. It’s also a phrase that I like to apply to going out for a morning run in the damp and darkness of fall and winter.

Admittedly, I am not facing planes that are waiting with machine guns to knock me down, although in the dark, cars and half-awake drivers aren’t a bad substitute sometimes. Still, I like to think there’s the same sense of going against the inclinations of comfort in order to do something difficult. And, if I’m honest, there’s also a sense of perverse satisfaction in believing that I’m the sort of person who wouldn’t make a completely hedonistic choice.

This bit of self-dramatization (because that’s what it is) dates back to my days of playing soccer and rugby when I was growing up. When going to practice or play and hearing someone voice a variation of “Sooner you than me,” I used to like to think that I was tough enough not to let bad weather discourage me. Of course, in reality, I had all the toughness of boiled spinach, but adolescents do need some shred of self-assurance to cling to. And, rather than admit myself a hypocrite, after the first tackle that left me sliding through the mud, I soon found myself taking a grim satisfaction in my ability to adapt to a condition that others still shied away from. It was a good way to score, too, because those who weren’t muddy themselves would often avoid me as someone who was slightly crazed.

Something of that same insanity persists in me to this day. When I leave the warmth of the bed and stumble outside into the wet and cold of autumn, I reflect that hundreds of people around me wouldn’t consider doing what I am, and then I don’t feel so miserable. Except on the coldest days of the year, the satisfaction lingers enough for me to fall into a rhythm and to warm myself with the exertion, so that the misery I’ve walled away disappears.

I suppose that something of the same train of thought drives people who take up dangerous sports or take chances. By comparision, my courage of the early morning is a very minor strain of the attitude at best. But middle-age, I find, needs its illusions as much as adolescence, and if it gets me out the door each morning, this is one to which I’ll cling.

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Yesterday, my superpower manifested itself again. It’s not a talent like a photographic memory, or an idiot-savant talent like being able to glance at a number and instantly know its square root (I’ve been called an “idiot” many times, but rarely a savant). Instead, it’s a usually dormant power, a kind of dedicated healing mode when a cold or a ‘flu attacks.

I rarely get a bug, but, when I do, my body instantly leaps to the attack. My temperature rises slightly, and my caloric intake rises sharply. Suddenly, I have an infinite capacity to sleep. This period lasts about twenty to thirty hours – maybe as long as two days for really virulent strains. Then, suddenly the mode reverses itself, my metabolism returns to normal, and I’m healthy again.

“Clean living,” I like to explain smugly when people around exclaim over my resilience, but I don’t really know. Perhaps it comes from some fluke in the crossover of chromosomes after all, making me some kind of third rate mutant.

Of course, crashing so throughly for a day or so could be inconvenient. But it almost never is. For about six semesters in a row at university, I finished my last exam or handed my last paper in, then retired to bed as soon as I got home. Similarly, yesterday, the ability manifested after I had met my monthly quota of articles – not my idea for a way to spend spare time, but economically convenient, all the same. My body seems not only unusually efficient in fighting infection, but, to a certain extent, able to hold off infections for a brief period as well.

I can’t say that this healing ability is what I would have chosen, had I been bitten by a radioactive hamster or fallen into a vat of nuclear waste. I’d go for flight, myself, or maybe eternal youth and immortality. Often, several years go by between manifestations, and I wonder if it’s gone or diminished.

Still, as I think how wretched I felt at this time yesterday, and compare the memory to how rejuvenated I feel today, I’m not complaining. Anyway, I make a lousy patient, and feel guilty when people do things for me that I can ordinarily do for myself. So, as super-powers go, it’s not a bad one. I just wish sometimes that it was more flashy.

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After fourteen months of enforced inactivty, on March 7 I finally returned to a schedule of heavy exercise. Since I’ve been fanatical about exercise since I was in Grade Three, the return is a relief. It also has me appreciating anew all the benefits I’d almost forgot about.

Not wanting to place too much strain on my knees, at least until I discover their limits, I’ve developed two different exercise regimes. On one day, I run 5 kilometers and do 24 kilometers on a stationary bike at my local rec center. On alternate days, I run 7 kilometers and swim a kilometer. On both days, I do 100 situps, 50 pushups, 60 half-squats, 80 stretches with each leg, and roll a ball up the wall 60 times with each leg. Two or three times a week, I also walk between 1 and 4 kilometers. These routines amount to less than I did when I was running 9 miles a day, but they give me a good workout without straining my beleaguered knees unduly. They take up almost two hours a day, but, since I used to spend the same amount of time commuting before I started working from home, I have little trouble fitting them in around a productive work day.

The health benefits are obvious. I’ve dropped 10 kilograms and counting, and stopped worrying about the family tendency to hypertension. I need less sleep, which makes sense: I’m carrying around less weight and more of the reminder is muscle. I also eat less, seeming to metabolize the food I do eat more efficiently.

None of these are benefits to ignore. However, I’ve also rediscovered other benefits. The most obvious ones are work-related. I have greater powers of concentration when I work at the computer than I did three and a half months ago. Just as importantly, between swimming (which means breast stroke for me) and pushups, even the first twinges of carpal tunnel no longer happen to me.

And if I have a problem with wording or organizing an article, all I have to do is take a break and go exercise until I break into a heavy sweat for 10 or 15 minutes. By the time I’m in front of the computer again, I have either solved the problem or else found a couple of ways to approach it.

Alternatively, if I’m out of sorts, a bit of exercise restores my good nature and optimism. Some days, I use that restorative at the start of the day, so that I feel energized for my work. On other days, I save most of my exercise for when I’m finished working, so that I’m renergized when I finish working.

The only way that my routines haven’t worked out is in meeting people. Vancouver had a damp spring, so often I’ve been the lone occupant of the pool in our townhouse complex. Similarly, at the gym, most people are fixed on their own routines, and don’t communicate much with each other. But I don’t mind much. Exercise has always been a meditative-like activity to me, and, on the whole, I prefer to approach it alone. Besides, the daily benefits far outweight this small negative.

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Three years ago, I gave up caffeine in all forms. I’m convinced I’m healthier for the decision, and that it gives me a certain edge over people. However, it constantly proves socially inconvenient.

Until I made the decision, I never imagined that I could do without caffeine. Like many people, I practically ran on it, drinking a cup of tea first thing in the morning, and two or three cups of coffee during the day – and, more often than I care to admit, a coke or chocolate on top of that. When I was teaching at Simon Fraser University, I was notorious for showing up to an early class nursing a large cup of coffee and a chocolate chip cookie. And for years, I thought a couple of coffees at Starbucks was a perfect way to spend a late Saturday morning (although never with my laptop; that would be pretentious). Similarly, in my days of office servitude, I thought sipping a cup of coffee first thing in the morning an ideal accompaniment to planning my day.

But my family has a history of high blood pressure and a couple of experiments showed that I was becoming so sensitive to caffeine that I could feel one hundred milliliters of coffee for over fourteen hours afterwards. In other words, not only was I gambling with my health, but I effectively lived with a perpetual buzz. Under these circumstances, quitting only made sense.

The first days of caffeine withdrawal quickly convinced me that I was physically addicted to the stuff. I had perpetual headaches, and I was unable to shake a listless irritation. But I was convinced that I would be better off, so I persevered, and eventually got the craving out of my system. Once the withdrawal symptoms stopped, I started feeling stronger and more alert. Aside from minute quantities of chocolate, and the occasional cup of tea to be polite – usually left unfinished – I’ve been clean ever since.

I miss the caffeine, and the sugar, if anything, even more so, but I discovered that what I really wanted in my day was a hot drink. An herbal tea like chamomile or peppermint does just as well, and helps relaxes me, rather than making me tenser.

This sacrifice on the altar of health has all the benefits that I expected. My blood pressure remains fine, thanks – in fact, it’s considerably lower than when I was a two-fisted coffee drinker. As a side benefit, I also sleep better, because my body isn’t constantly hyped up and I can relax more easily than I could before. Also, I can actually function on less sleep than previously, because I’m not whiplashed by the highs and comedowns of caffeine addiction.

However, there are other advantages, beyond what I expected. For one thing, when you live caffeine free, the artificial sense of urgency that many people seem to have simply vanishes. I can still respond to an emergency, or recognize the need to hurry, but I’m not constantly on edge.

Moreover, a caffeine-free body doesn’t lie; I know when I need sleep, and can make the effort to get it. Notoriously, most people in our society run on too little sleep, and, according to at least one study, every hour short of what they need robs them of a few IQ points. That means that, by the end of the week, a normal person can be operating at the level of a mentally challenged person. They take coffee to counteract their lack of sleep, but, just as caffeine after alcohol only makes a wide-awake drunk, caffeine on top of sleep deprivation only makes for an alert dullard.

If that’s true, then by foregoing caffeine and being aware of when I need sleep, I have an intellectual edge on many people, especially on Thursday and Fridays. And, even if that’s not true, I still have the energy to make those days as productive as earlier days in the work week.

The biggest problem I’ve had with my new diet is socially. When I’m away from home, finding a snack that isn’t chocolate is often next to impossible, even though my sugar addiction is still as strong as anyone’s.

But the real problem comes when I meet with someone, or attend a social event. People are used to vegetarians, or people with allergies, and will nod sympathetically when someone mentions these limitations. Even not drinking alcohol is socially acceptable these days in many places.

Yet, for some reason, many hosts are uncomfortable with someone who doesn’t use caffeine. They will constantly offer it, and, many times, even after I explain my preferences, the only way to calm their anxiety is to take a cup and then not drink it. Refusing caffeine almost seems an insult to your host’s hospitality, and many can’t rest easy until you accept some. If I ever fall off the wagon altogether, it will probably be because I’m tired of resisting the constant offers and want to be left alone. Modern society runs on caffeine – a fact that’s never more apparent than when you don’t.

However, I don’t think I’ll ever revert. Like most ex-addicts, I don’t want to go through withdrawal again. And, like many ex-addicts, I can be nastily smug when watching those still addicted when they’re struggling to get their fixes. So far as caffeine is concerned, a sizable portion of the population are actually functional addicts. Whenever I’m tempted to slip back into the habit, all I have to do is observe the fact to realize that I’m well out of it.

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