The day after classes ended at my university three friends and I biked in an organized ride in the uplands of South Carolina,  not far from our own homes in western North Carolina’s highlands. The annual ride was not easy, but, by the standards of our local topography, not terribly grueling either. The crux of the ride, its most difficult feature, was an ascent up the Blue Ridge Escarpment, the geographical boundary where South Carolina’s piedmont bolts up into the Appalachian Mountains.
About 19 miles after making it through that crux — a sustained 14 percent pitch cresting over the escarpment — one of my friends began to feel chest pains. Unbeknownst to the rest of us at the time, he stopped pedaling and decided to catch a ride in to the finish line from the race organizers, fearing the unfamiliar pain in his chest, unwilling to chance the last 12 miles of the ride.
Quite stupidly, when all four of us reconvened at the end of the event, cracking open celebratory beers and scarfing down food, the three of us who had completed the ride didn’t take our friend’s pain seriously. We convinced him that he was overreacting, and, perhaps wishfully, that he had simply strained a pectoral muscle as he pulled up through the punishing climb. “We get your beer,” one of us quipped while he complained with a worried expression that he could not eat or drink.
Luckily, we didn’t get our friend killed. Later that evening he underwent an emergency angioplasty. At some point during the ride a chunk of plaque had broken free of an arterial wall and blocked 70 percent of the blood flow to his heart. After we returned home, a savvier, more attentive friend insisted that he visit the emergency room, where the heart attack was immediately diagnosed and treatment began.
Luckily, the dislodged block of arterial plaque that came loose in my friend’s aorta did not enter the heart proper, where it almost certainly would have caused a quick death (I guess — I’m not that kind of doctor, as this whole series of events makes glaringly clear). And also luckily, our dismissal of our friend’s pain does not appear to have caused lasting damage — a recent echocardiogram revealed no permanent damage to his heart. But the experience was sobering for us all, even more so because, prior to that day, our friend was fit and appeared to be in excellent health. Fortunately, he will be fit and in excellent health again after a couple of months of rehab.
But the entire episode has reminded me how important it is for each of us to monitor our physical health, and how easy it is to neglect our health and routine checkups as we grind through the day-to-day demands of the academic schedule. The work binges that the academic year routinely cycles through effectively encourage academics to neglect their health from time to time. Even if you’re good about maintaining an exercise routine and eating not-too-unreasonably during the school year, which is difficult enough, it’s easy and tempting to put off things like regular medical check-ups until after the conclusion of the semester. Or to neglect them entirely.
The message here is simple — go to the doctor. The M.D. kind of doctor. Even if you feel great. Get an annual physical, tell your doctor your family history, and be aggressive about safeguarding your physical health. The mind can’t live in a dead body. If you’re already an employed professional and have health insurance — and I certainly hope that you do — take advantage of it. Go to the doctor.
But even if you’re a graduate student with little or poor health insurance, go to the doctor. Your relative youth cannot protect you from everything. If nothing else, go see the doctors at your campus’s student health center.
I’m not exactly sure why, but many of my friends in graduate school were incessantly critical and complaining about the student health services on our campus. As at most schools, we were required to pay a fee each semester that in turn allowed us access to the on-campus cadre of doctors, nurses, and other health professional who staffed the student health center. I think that student health centers are an amazing deal. From my perspective, using student health services was extremely convenient, due to the on-campus location, and ridiculously cheap, because of the student fee subsidization. Taking advantage of the university’s student health services was even cheaper than visiting the health care providers within our insurance network when I was a graduate student. I used student health for everything I could, from routine checkups (which were too few and far between, I admit) to months of daily physical therapy after a major knee surgery.
Late in my own graduate career, I realized that I needed a tetanus booster. I looked up the price of the booster on my university’s student health website. Five bucks. I couldn’t believe it. Even though it’s a routine inoculation, as straightforward as they come, it seemed like an unbelievably low price. After a few minutes, of scrolling, I realized that the student health center offered all sorts of wildly exotic inoculations at bargain-basement prices.
I made my appointment for the tetanus booster, but once in the nursing center I began ordering a la carte inoculations the way one might order nigiri in a sushi bar, eclectically, calling out to the nurse the names of the inoculations that simply sounded good. I even invented a thin cover story about outlandishly exotic upcoming research trips (wishful thinking for a Ph.D. candidate in English with no research budget) when her expression became suspicious. Now, maybe ordering up inoculations against exotic diseases “just in case” and because they seem like a deal isn’t the most prudent way to manage one’s health. But you’ll be amazed, I bet, by the offerings at your campus’s student health center.
Many of us become uncomfortable and shy in the doctor’s office. It’s a weird experience, a weird sort of submission to an expertise that is foreign to most of us. One way to make the experience less uncomfortable, and to improve your own treatment, is to ask questions. For a lot of reasons, medical doctors are overworked. So patients have to be assertive about asking questions, about treatment, about symptoms, about the implications of their families’ medical histories, about what and when particular screenings might be necessary.
At the risk of sounding preachy, go to the doctor. If nothing else, it buys peace of mind. You can even get a few inoculations while you’re there. In my own case, it will be several more years before I have to worry about contracting typhoid.