My Journey: Part One
Back in 2003, I was just a few months away from finishing my term as President of the Australian Medical Association. It had been three years lived at a cracking pace. I had been working ridiculously long hours, sometimes up to 18 hours a day; traversing the continent, living between Sydney, Canberra and whatever other destination I was visiting that week; and trying to run my practice and manage my family responsibilities. I was walking most days, but getting nowhere near the level of exercise I had done previously or the amount I knew I needed to do to keep my fitness up. With all of the travel and meetings running through mealtimes, an ideal diet was elusive and I had put on a few kilos. To say the medico-political environment I was working in was stressful is an understatement.
I was in my early forties at the time and I noticed my cycle became erratic. Big surprise! I put it down to stress but didn’t take the time to look at the underlying cause of the problem because I was so distracted by the intensity of the work I was doing, and I guess subconsciously I thought I could put my wellbeing on the backburner until the job was done. I now know this was an excuse, not a reason.
I spoke to my gynaecologist who prescribed a hormone treatment. I also had a bad cold with a cough, but when the cold cleared, the cough just wouldn’t go away. Then a few weeks later I noticed I was having trouble walking up hills. I made a mental note that I was letting myself get unfit and I needed to pay attention to my exercise program once my cough got better.
Then the next day I couldn’t get up the stairs without stopping because I was short of breath.
The day after that was a particularly busy day. I was working at my clinic in the morning, then I was delivering a lecture on medical indemnity reform to law students at the University of New South Wales, then dashing to the airport for a crucial meeting in Canberra with then prime minister John Howard. In the evening I had a full schedule too: a massive pile of paperwork, a meeting with my AMA colleagues and a political dinner to attend.
But by then I couldn’t make it across the consulting room without losing my breath. I knew something was seriously wrong.
I called the professor of respiratory medicine at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney. He insisted I come straight in. I remember deliberating about whether I could fit it into my terribly busy schedule but I decided should go.
Later I would be told that if I had tried to get on that plane to Canberra, I would likely not have survived to tell you this story, or to write this book. Even making it to hospital, I had just over 10 per cent chance of surviving, less of surviving without disability.
Within an hour of arriving at the hospital, I was in intensive care with a confirmed, life-threatening pulmonary embolism, an adverse effect from the hormone treatment I had started taking just weeks before. Blood clots were filling about half of both of my lungs. I was on oxygen, had monitors across my chest and was being injected with blood thinning medication. The next few days were a blur of blood tests, CT scans and ultrasounds.
We could clear the clots with anticoagulant injections but for a full recovery, the treatment required a broader view. I was facing a health crisis with serious ongoing consequences. It was a fork in the road. What was I going to do? How could I make changes to my life to find perspective, look after the fundamentals like exercise, diet, sleep and stress management? How could I overcome the fatigue and recover my fitness? How could I fit the exercise I knew I had to do into the frantically busy life I was leading? And how could I plan my later years knowing that hormone replacement was off the agenda if menopause struck with a vengeance?
It was time for a reality check.
My ‘brush with death’ forced me to face life with a new perspective.
It also forced me to face anew my attitudes to the practice of medicine and the choices we can offer for real and effective health improvement. And yes, to believe that every person can set themselves on the path to ultimate wellness.
My treating physician spoke to me before I left hospital to rehabilitate. He was absolutely unambiguous about two things: continuing the anticoagulant injections for a few months to dissolve the clots; and I had to exercise for an hour every day to maintain my cardio vascular fitness. No excuses. I might have lots of reasons why it might be difficult: ‘Not enough time’, ‘too busy’, ‘I have to fly interstate’, ‘I have to finish writing a speech’ – but none of them were good enough. There really was no excuse good enough for not making the changes that would aid my recovery from this life-threatening illness and optimise my wellbeing into the future.
I got to about 80 out of 100 on my personal scale of wellness but that was not going to be good enough. My recovery was a long road. I’ll tell you more about it later. But I made it. You can too.
I can honestly say every time I go for a walk on the beach or a swim or a long paddle in the kayak or ski down a mountain, I say a quiet word of gratitude for being able to do it. I am fitter and stronger than ever.
This book is my way of sharing what I have learned from my decades in medical practice, as well as an epiphany or two from my own personal journey. I overhauled my health and changed my life for the better. I found my own new normal and now, with my help, I hope you can too.
Excerpted from Ultimate Wellness by Dr Kerryn Phelps. Copyright © 2013 by Dr Kerryn Phelps.
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