One of the most common things my patients say to me, excluding those unfortunate few who have lived with a chronic condition most of their lives, is “This is the first time I’ve ever been sick.” They say it as if daring me to believe it, because they themselves are having a hard time believing it. Their run of perfect health has inexplicably come to an end. They quote at me their perfect medical history, taking pride in their previous resilience:
“I broke my arm when I was seven, but beyond that I’ve never even seen a doctor!”
They are always surprised that their bodies have let them down. But why? Why are we taken by surprise by the fact that we are mortal, that our imperfect bodies, which until this point have been fighting like a Spartan to maintain homeostasis, have finally, inevitably, let us down?
The evidence is all around us. We watch a plethora of television shows set in a hospital that week-in and week-out cash in on the drama that is a healthy person falling sick. And the reason this is such a successful emotional hook is because we all know that such a thing is possible, even probable, when you consider the multitude of infinitesimal processes that can go wrong within our bodies. We swap stories about the health of our families and sigh in all the right places when hearing of another’s health decline. Yet we fail to, or refuse to, make the connection that we will all eventually have an occasion where we will be, for the first time, admitted into a hospital because something has gone wrong.
The irony is these same people who proudly boast about never having their blood-pressure checked in fifty years are the same people who have been walking around with increasingly high blood-pressure for the past forty years. One morning they pass out while attempting to move a couch, end up in emergency with a stroke, and later state to their nurse with complete surprise, “I’ve never even been sick before, and now all this happens!”
My favourite patient, and by favourite I mean in a sarcastic, eye-rolling sort of way, are the ones who blame accidents or hospitals for the chronic disease they have due to a lifetime of poor lifestyle decisions. One of the best examples I have of this was when a sixty-year old man told me the tale of how he procured type two diabetes. This is a man with a gut that preceded him by at least thirty centimetres, a man who thought a six-pack of sugar-covered doughnuts to be an appropriate between meal snack, and who hadn’t done regular exercise since playing football in high-school.
Out of the two of us, I thought I could give a more accurate rendition of how he procured type two diabetes.
The story went that one day in his fifties he had decided to try riding a bike again. He pumped the tyres of his old bicycle and headed out onto the streets, flushed with the joy of being back on the road with the wind in his thinning hair. Unfortunately a neighbouring dog found the image of an overweight middle-aged man on a bike to be greatly entertaining and decided to join him. While attempting to shake the dog off his tail with a mixture of swerving handlebars, wobbling wheels and wildly kicking feet, our man lost control of his bike, fractured his hip and ended up in hospital. Where, as is common procedure, they took a blood sample and discovered he had previously undiagnosed type two diabetes.
Or, as my patient put it, “Fracturing my hip gave me diabetes.”
Despite my tactful attempt to suggest that it was simply the series of events that resulted in the discovery of his disease, that it was more likely down to the fact that he has three sugars in his tea and has eight cups of tea a day that led to his diabetes, he remained resolute that the act of fracturing a bone in his pelvis gave him high blood sugar. In the end, after half an hour of discussion, I sighed, nodded, and said with complete sincerity that I hope he never fractures his other hip or else he could end up with high blood pressure. To which he responded that he already has high blood pressure, but that he got it from his mum.
We all, every one of us, will eventually find ourselves in a hospital ward due to something that has gone wrong with us physically. It may be our fault, it may be an accident, or it may be a genetic condition that has reared its ugly head in later life, but something will happen someday.
The best we can do is accept this, and in the mean time work towards being as healthy as possible, enjoying and appreciating our health while we have it, and exploring ways we can improve ourselves when a health condition becomes known.
And for god’s sake, try to look after your hips.
They may be the only things standing between you and diabetes.