Scared to Health
Author : As told to Diana Mignatti American Health    -   Subject : Health

    Sandra Palmer, 41, Writer, Takoma Park, MD

    As the doctors took my blood pressure, gave me a nitroglycerin tablet and hooked me up to an EKG machine, I made a deal with myself: If I get through this, I promise to change. I thought I was having a heart attack. The day before, I had been at an Indian restaurant with my family when I started to feel tightness in my chest. At first I thought I had indigestion, but then it became difficult to breathe. That night, sleeping was impossible. The next day, when simply walking through a parking lot winded me, I got really frightened. Fortunately I was with a friend, and I said, "Don't drive like a maniac, but please get me to the nearest emergency room."

    After a few tests, the doctors determined that my heart was normal. Then they asked if I had ever suffered from asthma, which I hadn't. They were all puzzled. Soon after, my own physician did diagnose my problem as asthma. She believed I'd had an acute and prolonged asthma attack brought on by an allergen or a cold. I'll never be sure what happened, but I'm indebted to that cosmic wake-up call. I started taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking my dog longer and using my treadmill for up to an hour a day. I cut down on red meat and started eating tofu and lots of vegetables. I've kept my promise, and I feel better than ever.

    Ann Marie DeMonte, 58, Hairstylist, Bloomfield, CT

    When my dad died after a sudden heart attack 30 years ago, it made me realize that I'd have to eat right and exercise to be able to live life to the fullest. Although I was still battling the bulge, I discovered that I could eat lots of great food if I worked out. So I started skiing and playing softball. Soon I added jogging and cycling to my routine and even began running races.

    When I was 43, a friend suggested we do a triathlon. I didn't even know what a triathlon was, so I got a magazine about it and used one of the articles as my training guide. I loved the idea of an event that combined biking, swimming and running. That year I won first place in my age group-and I was hooked. I've been doing them ever since. Two years ago, I won first place again in my age group in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. It's a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26-mile run, which takes me more than 13 hours. I plan to compete for as long as I can. I want to be active forever.

    Susan Hendee, 47, Department Chair for the Culinary Arts Center, Central Islip, NY

    I'm a classically trained chef, and for 20 years I lived a very "rich" lifestyle. I would spend the day cooking and tasting deliciously fatty foods covered with creamy sauces, washing it all down with lots of wine-at least four glasses a day. And because of my hectic schedule, I never wanted or had time to cook for myself. Instead I'd often eat fast-food burgers and fries. All these habits added up to a 220-pound woman.

    Then, four years ago, my husband was killed in a car accident. I was devastated. But the tragedy made me take a hard look at my own life. I realized that if I wanted to live a long time, I needed to take care of my body. First I quit drinking every day. Then I rediscovered the Japanese food that my husband and I had celebrated with on our honeymoon: rice, sushi, nori rolls. I was able to drastically reduce my fat intake-and soothe my broken heart. I feel great now, and at 150 pounds I have more energy than ever.

    Heather Dean, 34, Entertainment Journalist, New York, NY

    A year into my broadcasting career, anyone would have thought I had a job at the coolest TV network on the planet. It was great, but I was extremely overextended. I rarely left the office before 8 p.m., and I was constantly anxiety ridden. When it came to taking care of myself, I was reckless. I ate sweets compulsively, smoked, never exercised and weighed well over 200 pounds. I was 25 and a wreck.

    Then came June 15, 1989. I arrived at work with an empty stomach but had a carrot muffin in my bag. The next thing I knew, it was 4 p.m. and I hadn't even touched the muffin or any other food. When I stood up, something was very wrong. I felt sick, as if I were going to faint, and I had trouble feeling my fingers and toes. I was suffering from low blood sugar, a pinched nerve from cradling the phone, exhaustion and serious stress overload. For the first time, I left work early, and I cried all evening once I got home. I knew I had to change, so I quit smoking that day and made an appointment with my doctor. Naturally, he told me I needed to eat more healthfully and exercise. I listened.

    I bought an exercise video and started working out with it almost every day. Now I do racewalking workouts five times a week and strength training three times. Plus, I eat lots of chicken and fish. And when I'm on the go, I grab an energy bar. I've lost 10 dress sizes and am finally healthy.

    Sarah Judson, Ph.D., 36, Professor of American History at the University of North Carolina in Asheville

    I grew up during the '70s in North Carolina, back when tans were really in vogue. I used to lie out in the sun slathered in baby oil just to get a deep, dark shade of red-never tanned and always burned. Then four years ago I noticed an odd dry patch above my lip. It was smaller than a pencil eraser, so I didn't call my dermatologist until the next year, when my mom started having a lot of precancerous patches removed from her face. It turned out that the growth on my lip, as well as several others the doctor found, was also precancerous. From that day on, I started wearing SPF 30 sunscreen plus a titanium-based makeup that provides total sunblock. And during the spring and summer, I wear a broad-brimmed hat. I have at least six now, and I always coordinate them with my outfits. The hats have become my trademark.

    Karen Couture, 39, Freelance Photographer, Fort Lauderdale, FL

    Seven years ago, I was your classic caffeinated, overbooked, overscheduled adrenaline junkie. Then one day, I fell to the floor, doubled over in pain and unable to catch my breath. I was rushed to the emergency room; the diagnosis was a rare and usually deadly lung disease called lymphangiomyomatosis. I went from working as a graphic designer full time to part time, from riding my bike to work to driving. Eventually I was confined to a wheelchair, and my doctors told me that if I didn't get a lung transplant within a year and a half, I would be dead. I lived in Massachusetts, where the average waiting time for a transplant was three years.

    So I started researching which states and transplant programs had the shortest waiting lists, and I decided to move to Florida. Six months later I got the call from Shands Hospital in Gainesville. I felt lucky, but I knew that I had saved my life by taking action. Since the operation, my life has completely turned around. I have a new career as a photographer, wrote a book on lung transplants for patients and even started swimming. Last August I swam freestyle and butterfly in the Transplant Games for the second year and won two bronze medals. I gave one to my donor family and one to Shands-I couldn't have done it without them.

    Pamela Diaconis, 38, Marketing Consultant, Philadelphia

    For seven years I worked like a madwoman as IKEA's public relations director. Even though I regularly had 14-hour days, I thrived on the pressure. Deep down, I knew the pace was putting my health at risk, especially since I have hereditary high cholesterol (it's been 500 since I was 26). When I resigned, I thought I was getting out in time.

    During my last week, the inevitable happened. I had terrible pressure in my chest, burning in my throat and trouble breathing. At first I thought it was just the stress of quitting. But the symptoms got worse. On my second-to-last day, I had a chest x-ray, an EKG and a stress test. What the doctors found was terrifying: There were three blockages in my heart, and one artery was completely blocked. At the ripe old age of 36, I had bypass surgery.

    It was a close call that taught me no job is worth ruining your health. After I recovered, I started making time for things besides work. I'm learning pottery and taking an Italian class, and I even wrote a book called Scandinavian Country. I walk, go to the gym and see a therapist to help me deal with my weight problem. Plus I run my own business now, which has made it easier to create a balance. My life is finally on an even keel.

    Carol Kempner, 53, Director of a countywide Head Start, a day care program, and Supervisor at a home for homeless teenage mothers, East Brunswick, NJ

    I was a die-hard smoker. I smoked; I quit; I smoked again. I even watched my son-in-law's mother die a painful, horrific death from lung cancer, and I kept on puffing. Then a phone call two years ago changed everything. My daughter was pregnant with my first grandchild. I was thrilled and still smiling when I hung up the phone. But later that day it hit me: If I continued to smoke, I wouldn't be around for this grandchild-or any others. That's when I decided to quit. I set the date for March 1, 1997. I haven't smoked since, and I won't ever smoke again.

    Annette Hearn, 42, High School Teacher, Baltimore, MD

    When I saw a picture of myself shoveling snow after a blizzard, I almost died. All I could see was my face-big, chunky and round. I'd always envisioned my face as slim, but pictures don't lie. I was fat. At first I couldn't believe it. I'd always been thin. But I had gained weight when I had my two kids and never lost it. What made it all the worse was that my 40th birthday was looming. There was no way that I was going to be fat, frumpy and 40. Within a week I saw my doctor, and I almost cried when I found out I weighed 160 pounds (I'm 5'6'' tall). But I was determined to change, and I immediately started a physician-supervised weight loss program.

    I didn't tell anyone what I was doing. I just quietly started eating more fruits and vegetables, and I cut out drinking cola and eating chips with the kids. Even more important, I started walking six days a week. My husband noticed my different eating habits, but nothing else until the following spring, when I started wearing slim-fitting skirts and sleeveless shirts. "Whoa! You look amazing!" he said. "Does this mean I have to get in shape too?" I've lost 25 pounds, and I love the way I feel now-fit, energetic and very far from a frumpy 40!

    Denise Demers Stein, 37, Management Consultant Bloomfield Hills, MI

    My life fell to pieces in 1989. In the spring I got divorced. The following fall my father had a quadruple bypass. In December my older brother died of a heart-related aneurysm. Then, 10 days later, I blew my knee apart in a skiing accident and was told I'd limp for the rest of my life. I decided right then there was no way I was going to limp forever, or end up like my brother.

    Until that year, my health consciousness had been strictly about being thin and looking good. But these experiences taught me that health is more than just being skinny. I hired a personal trainer to help me get in shape and lose my limp, which I did. I've been on a fitness pilgrimage ever since.

    Jennifer Heusser, 34, Writer, Santa Monica, CA

    When I was 26, I skipped a period and didn't think much of it. Then I skipped another. When the home pregnancy test was negative, I breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn't ready for children. But when I skipped my next period, I started to worry. My gynecologist put me on a drug to induce my period, but it didn't work. Then he started asking questions like "Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night sweaty and nervous?" and "Do you get incredibly hot for about a minute every once in a while?" When I said yes, he delivered the news: I had premature ovarian failure, and tests showed I had the hormone levels of an 80-year-old woman.

    Because I have to protect myself against illnesses that usually don't affect women until later in life, I'm more health conscious than ever. I started lifting weights and walking to protect against osteoporosis. I also take hormone replacement therapy, calcium supplements and a multivitamin. Before the diagnosis, I thought I'd live forever, have kids and never worry about my health. Now I realize how precious my body-and life-really are.

    Diana Mignatti is a writer in Newport, RI, whose own cosmic wake-up call helped her escape New York.

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