The other day I sat in front of the neighborhood Starbucks reading The Atlantic magazine and listening to jazz legend John Coltrane through my ear plugs. I could hear my high school buddies saying, “ohhhkay…look at the school boy” in a gently teasing way. While I’m not any smarter than the next guy, I do have a love of learning new things, a trait that I got from my parents.
This enthusiasm for reading is a double-edged sword. On the downside, my passion for American history and politics has me wringing my hands about the uncertain future that confronts our nation during this turbulent time. The upside is that a nearly insatiable quest for knowledge and understanding gives me hope for a health crisis that has dominated my life.
I’ve written much about the roles that faith, family, and friends have played in the 8 ½ year-long saga of heart failure and associated complications. I haven’t spent so much time on the medical team that’s been a Godsend to me and my family. From a faith viewpoint, I truly believe that God assigned this group of people to guide me through a complex medical journey.
The team at Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center is an outstanding collection of talented professionals working with high-tech tools in a state-of-the art facility. I can’t imagine a more impressive lineup of individuals working together to serve the health needs of their patients. Every step of the way, Sandra and I have been an integral part of the team.
With everything I’ve learned from this experience, I strenuously offer to friends, family, and all readers unsolicited advice: Work in collaboration with your doctors and healthcare providers, and ask lots of questions.
I would be in better health today if I followed this advice. Like most men (yes, I’m taking a shot at my gender), I thought I was invincible. I was well aware of my family’s history with heart disease, as was my doctor. At annual physicals, he advised exercise and a healthy lifestyle. But, I ate unhealthy food, drank too much on weekends, and worked like there was no tomorrow.
Despite promises to the doctor, my commitments to lifestyle changes never materialized. The trifecta of unwise behavior was too much to overcome my regular exercise regimen. According to the American Heart Association, a healthy way of life can reduce heart failure by 50% for those of us with a genetic disposition to cardiovascular disease. I just didn’t listen to my doctor.
When I survived a heart attack and Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, I promised myself and my family that I would do whatever it takes to live as long as God allowed. With a commitment to do my part and leave the rest to faith, my determination to follow doctor’s orders and learn as much as possible about the disease became priorities for me.
In the aftermath of the heart attack that started this life-changing journey, I couldn’t wait to go home after first going into the hospital. I came home, returned to the hospital, came home again, and returned to the hospital a third time over the following few days. The last stay turned into a 100-day nightmare. After that harrowing experience, I decided to trust the professionals.
For some reason, most of us don’t do that. How many times have you heard someone say, “The doctor doesn’t know what he’s doing”? There are others who might say, “She isn’t a good doctor.” Or the common refrain, “I don’t like taking medicine, it doesn’t work anyway.”
I’ve learned that the practice of medicine isn’t just a science. It’s also an art. Doctors aren’t miracle makers and drugs aren’t magic cures. It’s critical to develop trusting relationships with healthcare providers. That means being honest about how you feel. Maybe it makes you feel like a strong person to tell doctors that you feel fine. Being tough won’t keep you from ending up in the ICU because you weren’t straightforward with your doctor.
Most of us don’t like to hear bad news. That might be why we avoid going to the doctor on a regular basis. But, at some point, you have to accept what is and work to resolve what’s ailing you. Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals are more knowledgeable than we are when it comes to the science of medicine. We know how we feel. That’s how collaboration guides them to do what’s best for you.
One of the biggest lessons Sandra and I learned was asking questions every time a doctor said something we didn’t understand. For example, we didn’t know the difference between myocardial infarction and cardiac arrest. Rather than just listening, we interrupted and asked for clarification. You can resolve misunderstandings by simply asking, “What does that mean?”
My cardiologist’s guidance and advice has kept me alive and kicking for over 8 years. After clarifying our discussions during appointments or by e-mail, we agree on a plan of action. It’s been a team effort. I now work with a talented heart transplant team that has been patient with our multitude of questions. By now, Sandra and I are probably pros at this.
How can you tell if a doctor is good? With a 100-plus days in the hospital, including 5 weeks in the ICU and 3 weeks in physical rehab, I’ve seen many doctors, nurses, and support staff. It’s impossible to judge a doctor on how much he or she knows about medicine. Remember that they know more about that stuff than we do. For me, the answer is simple. The good ones listen as much as they talk. They’re patient with questions and treat you like an equal partner.
I’ve been blessed to work with so many outstanding health professionals. Not only do I cherish the relationships we’ve have built together, the partnerships have given me a wonderful quality of life. They trust me and I trust them to tell it like it is. As an information hog, more information is better than less. They’re happy to oblige. It helps me understand and helps them care for me. I have a sincere affection for all of them.
Good healthcare is a team effort. The decision to be a team player when it comes to my health is one of the best choices I’ve ever made. For almost 9 years, I’ve lived a full life to the credit of faith, family, friends, and a strong medical team. I hope there are more fulfilling years to come. I urge you to make the same choice about your healthcare. Learn to trust your team. It could save your life.