I spent this past Saturday night in a hospital emergency room with my 82-year-old mother. She was there for severe chest pains, but this was only the latest of several ER visits over the past decade for a litany of reasons all related to her declining health. While at the hospital my mind was consumed with worry and impatience as we waited for the doctor to see her, but over the last couple of days this latest health emergency has brought into focus what my mom has taught me about taking care of myself.
Putting herself last
Unfortunately a lot of what I’ve learned from my mom about health is how not to take care of myself. All her life, she has fallen into the trap of putting her own health last. Growing up, she made sure my sisters, our dad and I all went to the doctor and dentist regularly, and did her best to attend to our health in an intelligent way.
For example, when I was a slightly overweight teen, she took me to our family doctor for a diet plan. In contrast, she addressed her own lifelong weight struggle in a sometimes reckless way, trying everything from a nine-month-long liquid diet to getting injections of a supposed “miracle” diet drug.
But the most damaging thing my mom did to her health, in my opinion, was smoking for almost 50 years. She started when she was a teenager and continued (except for quitting for a year when I was 11) until her late 60s when a doctor’s dire warning scared her into stopping cold turkey. As amazing an achievement as that was, a few years later mom was put on permanent oxygen, as the smoking had led to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), otherwise known as emphysema. I hated seeing the hold the habit had on my mom, but the result of witnessing that has been that neither of my sisters or me have ever smoked.
A sad irony of my mom’s poor health is that as a young girl she was a natural athlete, in the days when females weren’t encouraged to be sporty. She still talks fondly of an early date with my dad when he made a surprise visit to watch her play baseball. My mom also loved roller skating, swimming and was a trophy-winning bowler (she was so serious about the latter that the first daycare I went to was in a bowling alley).
My opposite health history
But all those activities stopped as the years went on and by the time I was a teen my mom’s main exercise was walking from the parking lot to the mall. While I was the nonathletic kid in a sporty family (my dad was a marathon runner, my oldest sister a hockey and softball player, and my middle sister a cheerleader, gymnast and figure skater), in my adult life I’ve embraced working out and, opposite to my mom, have gotten much fitter with age.
The positive side
All this isn’t to say my mom has never set a positive example for taking care of myself. She’s always had expressive and graceful hands (so much so she was cast as a hand model for a dish detergent TV ad in the ’70s), and pampered them with weekly manicures. I think part of her dedication to the ritual was that no matter what her weight, she could look at her long red nails and take pride in part of her appearance. I’ve modeled her nail devotion, but for me it’s all about regular pedicures.
As for this latest hospital visit, after seven hours in the ER, and a diagnosis of pleural effusion (fluid in the lungs and chest cavity), at 1 a.m. my mom was released. If only she could be released from the legacy of her health choices.
What has your mother taught you about taking care of yourself?