My patients come in waves. The most common patients I have are grumpy old dudes with congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. I’m pretty fond of them. This week all of my patients were younger, some younger than me, with coronary artery disease at huge risk for heart attack. One had a diastolic blood pressure that never went below 120, one had to be taken for a stent (to bypass arteries that are ‘clogged’ and not able to allow blood to flow to the heart), and another had had a heart attack and stroke the week before.
I knew when I was getting in to nursing that I did not want to work with cancer. A lot of things cause cancer, but it’s not as easy to determine, and it can be quite indiscriminate. One of the biggest predetermining factors for cancer is age. Eventually it’s going to get you. That’s depressing and I don’t want to think about that all the time, cancer seems nigh unconquerable.
Hypertension, coronary artery disease, and atherosclerosis–these are things with direct cause and effect relationships with food, exercise, and lifestyle choices. Yes, there is a genetic component, but we can control the variables. These are diseases that I can focus on and get excited about.
When I was helping my middle aged patient on the stretcher to go to the hospital that would put in his stent, the family was talking about where they would go for dinner on the way to the hospital. The ambulance workers were telling the family where all the good fried chicken restaurants were.
This is a family who is looking death in the face through the lens of an atherosclerotic coronary artery. This man’s father had died young from a heart attack. The ambulance workers recognized The ambulance workers recognized his family name because the siblings called 911 for chest pain frequently.
My input? Fried chicken clogs arteries. We are sending your dear sweet husband to surgery for clogged arteries and you are going to stop on the way and buy some more grease. Now I realize that lifestyle change takes time and education, but it is frustrating when our behaviors are so obviously self defeating.
I gave them my ‘what for’ speech about packing an artery with their food while sending hubby under the knife to carve out a new pathway to oxygenate the heart, and then I recommended the health food store deli across the street as a great place to pick up something fast that wouldn’t take years off their lives.
As I was walking away I could hear the ambulance worker reinforcing the idea that fried chicken was a perfectly fine thing to eat when under stress and the family seemed to agree that this was no time for health food.
I’m at a loss.
A couple weeks ago I was trying to convince an older congestive heart failure and COPD (he can’t breathe well) patient of the same thing. His family was bringing him fast food and he kept asking me to bring him sodas. Of course every time he asks me for a soda it comes with a lecture on the evils of putting bad fuel in your engine. He argued and argued with me that he just wasn’t a water drinking kind of guy and that fast food tastes good to him.
This is a man who weighs over 300 pounds and is in the hospital for shortness of breath. The extra weight he’s carrying alone could make a person short of breath.
One day, while I was caring for him, I said, “You wouldn’t put bad fuel in your car would you?” He stopped and looked at me for a minute. He said, “You got me there. I can’t argue with that.”
There’s a sign in the shoe store for runners that says, “Don’t choose your shoes because of the color!” Runners choose their shoes for their function. Yes, you can choose food because it tastes good, but the function of eating is to fuel the body.
“But I don’t like that kind of food” is not a good defense.
It is hard being a human on the planet. Making good choices is hard, and it’s a process. And our culture does not support healthy food choices, even our ambulance paramedics are advocating for fast food. Food is addictive. We want what we want and it’s hard to see the direct cause and effect that can carve time off of our lives.
I don’t know that my constant re-education of patients on lifestyle and food choices does any good, but I’m at a loss as to what else to do to try to affect change.
But I do have an idea for a book that surveys hospitals that are doing healthy food well and asks how they got that way. Maybe we could use that kind of research to affect policy change in a more systemic way in our hospital systems.
In the meantime I’ll continue with the one on one approach on the front lines. What you eat matters!
Wendy Finn is the mother of 4 boys, former owner of I.M. Spa, registered nurse at a local hospital, Raw Food Enthusiast and educator, world traveler in pursuit of superior massage education, a Master Massage Therapist of 24 plus years, a massage therapy educator, and a gardener. She’s passionate about touching people and sharing health.