Thursday, June 28, 2012

It's My Health. I am in Control.

My next posting for the ACHA blog is about a lesson I recently learned (unintentionally) from an awkward colleague. It will be published tomorrow.
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I am lucky to not only have a job that I enjoy, but to also work for an organization that puts a high value on employee health and wellness. In addition to having a staff Wellness Committee (on which I serve), the company hosts annual wellness screenings, offered free of charge to employees on its health insurance plan. The screening provides a comprehensive health risk assessment, as well as early detection for a variety of health issues.

I think most people understand and respect the fact that a person’s health is a very personal matter. Our HR department makes it clear that participating in the screening is entirely voluntary and that our scores are confidential. (Results are sent from the third party provider directly to our homes. Our employer never sees them.)

As an adult CHD patient who advocates, fundraises, and blogs publicly about the issue, I am pretty open about my heart health. Colleagues and friends are sometimes reluctant to ask questions for fear of seeming insensitive, but I appreciate their interest. I am comfortable talking about my CHD, not only as a way of sharing my own story, but also as a way to raise awareness for the CHD community.

I also take a lot of pride in my overall health and level of physical activity, and I love bicycling. Most people who know me—whether in person or through my blog—are aware of this passion; and most understand the basic lifestyle that typically accompanies any athlete: healthy eating, no smoking, etc.

With all this being fairly common knowledge about me, I was surprised to be caught off guard when I went for my annual wellness screening a couple weeks ago. While filling out the necessary paperwork, one of my colleagues sat down next to me to do the same thing. (Unfortunately, this particular colleague doesn’t always understand or respect personal space.) While reading through the health questionnaire—out loud, no less—she eventually gets to the question about tobacco use. “Well, I know for a fact that this gentleman next to me is not a tobacco user,” is the next thing I hear her announce. I suppose this is her way of trying to interact with me casually, but I can’t help but feel my skin crawling. I simply ignore her.

Conveniently we work on the same floor, so she and I have a chat later that morning about the (supposedly) confidential nature of those health screenings. I remind her that they are intended to be private and that, even though her comment was actually a statement on my healthy lifestyle, it was not appropriate for her to make any remark one way or another. She did apologize, if for no other reason than being embarrassed about it or called out on her behavior.

Surprisingly, that encounter grated on my nerves for the rest of the day. Why would a passing comment, harmless as it was, get under my skin like that? Why was I—who talk and write openly about something as serious as a congenital heart defect—so bothered by an awkward colleague who made a statement about my lack of tobacco use? And then it hit me. Someone else attempted to take control of a conversation about my health without my knowledge or permission. Someone else, who has a loose connection to me at best, thought it was okay to make such a proclamation on my behalf.

As irritating as this was, it helped teach me something. I realized that one of the reasons I have become so comfortable being open about my CHD is because it was my choice to do so. No one forced me to post it on Facebook or to start a public blog about it. After privately struggling through some challenging heart health decisions last fall, I took the initiative on my own to make the conversation about my CHD much more public. It wasn’t anyone else’s decision. I was in control, and I was calling the shots.

I encourage you to do the same. Once you have the right tools and the necessary medical advice, take control of your own health. Become empowered and call the shots!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

14 Weeks to the Finish Line

Fourteen weeks from today, on September 9, I will take on my first-ever running endurance event—the Chicago Half Marathon. My training officially starts tomorrow. I am using HalHigdon’s 12-week half marathon training program, and I extended it to 14 weeks. (I simply decided to repeat weeks 1 and 2 twice). Truth be told, I am both excited and nervous about this journey ahead. I’ve never done anything like this, and my endurance for running is still pretty limited.

But the time has come for me to face this new challenge head on and work my way through the training schedule one day at a time. My goal is not to win the half marathon. My goals are to complete it successfully, to raise money for the AdultCongenital Heart Association, and to increase awareness of congenital heart disease. The challenges that I will face over these next 14 weeks pale in comparison to the daily challenges faced by so many CHD patients, both young and old.

Having taken part in a number of cycling endurance events over the years and having successfully overcome my own recent heart health challenges, I decided to sign up for this race to overcome a new challenge. I am running for those who cannot run, and I am running to ensure that ACHA’s much-needed resources and services for adults living with congenital heart disease can continue. ACHA was there for me when I felt most vulnerable, and the organization’s staff provided the support and information that I needed to navigate the confusing and sometimes-scary world of adult congenital heart care. This race is just one way that I hope to give back to an agency that has become so close to my heart in a very short amount of time.

I invite you to stay tuned here—as well as to my Facebook page and Twitter feed—as I embark on this new journey over the summer. While you’re at it, I also encourage you to support this great cause by making adonation on my behalf. I look forward to seeing you at the finish line (with water and snacks, please)!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Finding Balance

My latest posting for the ACHA blog explores my propensity to over-commit myself to volunteer activities and offers some tips on how to prioritize. (I think I need to learn to follow my own advice at times.) It was published this past Tuesday (May 29, 2012).
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I consider myself very fortunate to be an adult with a CHD who generally does not have to think about or actively manage his condition on a day-to-day basis. While I’m certainly always aware of it, my personal experience with CHD has been much less traumatic or severe than many of my peers. In part because of this, I feel it is especially important for me to be more involved in the cause. And it has led me to become an active volunteer with ACHA: as a blogger, as an advocate, and now as a runner (which has included being involved in helping to create ACHA’s very first endurance event team—the Captain Cardio’s Pace Makers—to raise awareness for the cause and money for ACHA).

As my family and friends know quite well, I like to get involved in a variety of things. But I often seem to find myself walking that fine line between being actively and productively engaged and being overwhelmed. In addition to my volunteer work with ACHA, I sing in two community choirs, am the treasurer of my condo association, serve on the wellness committee at work, and participate in a local young professionals’ group. Oh yeah, and I also have that little thing called a full-time job.

I was recently telling a friend of mine that, by getting more involved with ACHA and its work for the CHD community these past few months, I feel like I have really found my cause, in part, because, well, it is my cause. Over the years I have gotten involved with and donated to different organizations in support of a variety of worthy causes, from LGBT rights and bullying prevention to cancer care and HIV/AIDS service organizations. While I certainly have a direct or indirect connection to each of these other causes, something about being involved in the CHD community feels a little closer to my heart (no pun intended).

The challenge for me, now, is figuring out how I can be the most effective advocate for the cause in a way that allows me to stay actively engaged and enthusiastic about it without over committing myself. Now don’t get me wrong! I enjoy everything that I’m doing and oftentimes wish I could be doing even more (whether it’s for CHD awareness or any of the other causes I support). But I know that crossing that line to the point of being overwhelmed and ineffective is not beneficial to anyone.

Here are just a few general “rules” or tips that I try to keep in mind when it comes to my volunteer activities. However, I’m usually better at giving advice than taking it—even when it’s my own advice:

1)      Do what makes you happy. There are a lot of great organizations out there that are doing important work for a huge number of causes. Find your passion or passions and focus the bulk of your efforts on a limited number (1–3 perhaps) in order to have the greatest impact. And don’t worry if your passions or interests change from time to time. That’s just a part of life.
2)      Do what you can. Your best is all anyone can ask of you. Don’t compare yourself to others or feel like you’re not doing enough just because someone else may be doing more than you are.
3)      Learn to say “no.” (Truth be told, I’m still working on this one myself.) If you know you can’t—or don’t want to—do something, simply say “no.” If you need to step away from something that you are currently doing, find the best way to make the most gracious and least disruptive exit that you can. (Note: This is not intended as a way to back out of every little thing you may not want to do. Rather, it’s meant as a reminder to be realistic about what you can and cannot realistically commit yourself to.)

So what’s important to you?