By Nailah Thompson, DO MPH
Last week, a 64 year-old Black man went to his Primary Care physician for a routine check-up. He had no significant medical history but went in after receiving a call from his doctor’s office because they hadn’t seen him in more than a year.
At the end of his visit, before leaving the room, the doctor asked if there was anything else he wanted to share, and he mentioned that he had experienced some “chest tightness” when walking up the stairs at the Oracle Arena at a recent warriors game.
He was sent for a test, which found that his heart was not getting enough oxygen. He was sent for another test that showed he, in fact, had extensive heart disease with severe plaque buildup in the arteries leading to his heart.
He was hospitalized and had to have Open Heart Surgery to restore adequate blood flow to his heart.
That 64 year-old man is my father and we were at that Warriors game together. He failed to mention the chest tightness to his wife, his daughter the physician, or anyone else.
When I asked him why, he told me he figured he was just “out of shape,” as he had picked up some extra weight over the past several years as he had become less active.
He later admitted he had been in denial. This came as a shock to our family. But sadly, this scenario happens all too often. Thankfully my dad is receiving the care he needs to prevent a major heart attack in the future.
If you haven’t been personally affected by heart disease, odds are someone you know has. Heart Disease is the leading cause of death for Blacks in America.
Black women in America face a greater risk of heart disease than women of other backgrounds.
For me, this experience was a wakeup call that a shift needs to happen in our idea of healthcare. I believe we need to move from the practice of using the healthcare system when you need someone to fix you, to using the healthcare system as a place where each patient and their physician form a team.
This team will make decisions to invest in the patient’s health and wellness at the earliest possible point to maximize the number of each patient’s quality, healthy years of life. Each person can do some simple things to increase their number of quality, healthy years of life; this number will differ for every person.
Know your family history: My grandmother had a heart attack at age 50. She and others in my father’s family had heart disease – my father was unaware of this. This information could have been a warning for him to let his doctor know and be aware of his risk and possible symptoms.
Know your numbers: We all should know our blood pressure, and whether it is normal or elevated. Important numbers to remember are:
Normal BP is less than 120/80; Normal total cholesterol is less than 200; Normal fasting sugar is less than 100; Normal Hemoglobin A1c is less than 6. (If you have diabetes this test monitors your sugar control over 3-4 months)
Make healthy life choices regarding eating and exercise: Healthy choices when it comes to food and drink and regular exercise not only help with weight loss, but also help to prevent chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. Eating healthy and exercising regularly can help lower your blood pressure and cholesterol and reduce your risk of dying from heart disease.
It is important to do all these things, as doing just one is not enough. My father knew his numbers.
He didn’t have a history of high blood pressure or any other chronic diseases. For him, the family history was the most important factor.
It is vital that we not only check our blood pressure, not only have blood tests done, or not only exercise regularly and eat healthy. We must also connect with our physician, follow up regularly, and be aware of our family history in conjunction with recognizing and reporting symptoms that could be indicative of heart disease.
We must take advantage of the resources available to us through our healthcare team and healthcare system while we are healthy. This will make it possible for us as a community, to move from a fix me system of health care, to focusing on our health and doing all we can to reach and maintain our highest level of health and wellness.