“At Least You Have Your Health…”

By Brett Richins, DMD

In April 2017 I unknowingly was forced to start reevaluating what it really means to say, “At least we have our health.” Life was good, but it was busier than ever. I was at work trying to keep up with the schedule in my dental office. We had moved out of our house a week earlier and were supposed to be closing on a new home in couple of days, however things were looking like it might fall through. My wife was in Denmark on vacation, so I was trying to manage all of this and the schedules of our four kids on my own while living out of moving boxes. I wouldn’t admit it at the time if you had asked me, but I was stressed. Things seemed like they had all hit at once.

As I walked out of the office to get the kids from school one day, I was hit by sudden and intense vertigo. It lasted several minutes and then went away, but after it was gone, I was still feeling a sense of disorientation and a lack of coordination on my left side. I tripped as I tried to lift my left foot up a stair and I shut my car door not realizing that my left leg wasn’t in the car. After a few hours I became very concerned, but I kept thinking, “I’m young and healthy. This obviously isn’t anything serious.” I finally decided to go to the urgent care out of fear that it might be a stroke. They didn’t find anything but recommended that I see a neurologist. Within the next few days I felt normal again and the worry subsided, attributing the symptoms to stress or an inner ear issue. My wife returned from her trip to Denmark, we closed on our house and life continued on as normal. I even considered that I might blow off the neurologist appointment.

It took two months to even get into the neurologist and I had no other symptoms since making the appointment. After hearing about the vertigo incident, the neurologist wasn’t concerned either but we decided to do an MRI just to be safe. Within two weeks of that MRI, on August 10, I was having brain surgery to remove a hockey puck shaped glioma. I had brain cancer.

I spent three weeks in the hospital re-learning just how to walk and do normal daily activities. I spent another three months at home, going to daily physical and occupational therapy appointments. It was hard to believe that I used to work 40-50 hours a week with no problem. The day before my surgery, I was able to easily do a 20-mile mountain bike ride. Now I wasn’t sure if I would work or bike again.

As I said earlier, during this time and over the next couple of years I re-evaluated what it meant to have my health. It sometimes can seem very binary; either we “have our health” or we don’t. I think the reality is that it is more or a continuum. It doesn’t mean the same thing for each of us, and it won’t always mean the same thing to each of us individually during our careers. Prior to my tumor I enjoyed as close to perfect health as one might imagine. Now I realize that this can’t always be the case and is often the exception rather than the rule for me. As I talk to patients and to other dentists I realize that many are dealing with health issues. Whether it be chronic pain, physical ailments, emotional health, mental health or even injuries we all are likely to face health challenges during our career.

How do we handle these challenges or better yet prepare for them? For me there are a few key things. First, protect our health with healthy living and exercise. Second, monitor our health in order to be proactive about anticipated treatment (How often do we preach preventative care in our practices but then never see a doctor ourselves?). Finally, arm ourselves with disability and other types of insurance to protect our families in case of unforeseen injuries or health issues.

So how do we know if we “have our health?” How do we answer this very individualized question when all we can do is compare ourselves to several years ago or to others around us that may seem to be in perfect health? I think we can all pause to evaluate how we can better take care of our own health so that we will be more able to be there for our patients and our families. We may not have the health we once enjoyed, but we most likely have a lot to be grateful for.