I'm Young, I'm Fit. What Could Happen?

I never went to the doctor. This was not a principle-based decision (in other words, I think they’re pretty smart people), but more of a tendency to be reactionary instead of progressive and because of the cost.

Last August I was asked who my doctor was. I did not have an answer.

In fact, I had been to a hospital or doctor’s office so few times in the last 12 years that I can actually remember each visit:

  1. In 1999, I went to the Texas A&M clinic because of strep throat (antibiotics prescribed).
  2. In 2003, I went to the ER to get stitches after cutting my ankle with my chainring on my bike (eight stitches).
  3. In 2004, I got x-rays on my ankle after an accident (nothing broken/hurt).
  4. In 2007, I went to an Urgent Care in Boulder because of serious stomach conditions lasting two weeks (tested positive for Giardia contracted from open water swimming).
  5. In 2008, I went to the ER to get x-rays after crashing on a trail run and driving my knee into a boulder (no broken bones).
  6. In 2009, I went to a dermatologist to check an area of road rash that seemed to have healed in a gnarly fashion (everything okay, but gnarly nonetheless).

That comes to six visits in 12 years and only to address acute systems of a specific problem in each case. I’m not trying to give you a brief snapshot of my medical history, but instead, I’m trying to show that from the age of 18-30 Inever went to the doctor for a routine exam. Until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t had a physical exam since I was in high school (I’m 30). The only time I would make my way to the doctor’s office was because I had no other option.

This might have continued without having come across Dr. Larry Creswell, a heart surgeon from Jackson, Miss., who reached out to me several years ago for triathlon coaching. In the beginning our conversations were one-sided, but eventually he became the expert and I began to ask questions related to general, and my own, health. I gave him the same synopsis I gave you all: I went to the doctor when I had to, but I avoided any other visits. My monthly premiums for a high deductible insurance plan was all I was willing to dish out. Other things took priority after that; as is the case when our day to day lives tick over without incident. Additionally, I didn’t really have anything to complain about; physically I generally felt fine.

However, I started to hear more and more about athletes with (heart) problems and I have personally attended numerous races where athletes have died from cardiac arrest during the event (however, none were as young as me). We’ve also seen several triathletes retire from our sport (Greg Welsh and Torbjorn Sindballe), and in one of the most tragic cases: Ryan Shay passed away while racing the Olympic Trials Marathon in November of 2007. He was 27 years old.

With all this in mind, I made a deal with myself that I would step up and make sure I was healthy. I was no longer going to assume that I was healthy; I was going to know.

I asked Larry what I should do to answer two questions:

  1. Is my heart healthy?
  2. Am I healthy (as it relates to a 30 year old male)?

He suggested I do the following given my 12 year hiatus:

  • Have a physical exam with an overview of my health through some questionnaires prior to my visit (general health)
  • Have blood work done: a comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP); a complete blood count (CBC); and a Fasting Lipid Profile (general health)
  • Do an EKG (heart)
  • Do an echocardiogram (heart)

After all was said and done, I’m okay. I’m healthy by all of the above standards.

This is probably not going to convince any of you to go out and do what I did since everything was okay. I suppose if I had come back to relay some really bad news it would spring more of you into action. Unfortunately (well, actually fortunately), that is not the case. The only thing I can tell you is that I can rule out particular risks for heart disease at this point in my life (and athletic career) and that my overall health is good.

While it might be nice to know all that, I have to be honest and tell you all that these are out of pocket expenses for me since they are not “approved” by my insurance company and they won’t even apply to my yearly deductible (I’m speaking specifically to the heart exams; not the blood work or physical). I saw this as an investment in myself and was willing to deal with it as such. However I do have some suggestions for paying for this type of preventive health care if you choose to do so:

  • If you have a high deductible plan (like me), you likely qualify for a health savings account (HSA). You can deposit money into this account pre-tax and apply this to the above costs. Do your research on these accounts, because I’ve see a lot that charge monthly fees while others do not. If you make it a habit to deposit small amounts every month, it will begin to add up quickly.
  • Check with your employer to see if they offer a medical spending account (MSA) benefit. If so, these allow for pre-tax contributions, but they do not roll over from year to year (unlike HSAs), so you will want to plan ahead for your visit.
  • Look for local health fairs in your community. These fairs offer a plethora of free screening while offering heavily discounted rates for other types of screenings. This is probably one of the best options I’ve seen for keeping tabs on your health while on a tight budget. Even without the heart tests (most expensive) you can still get a broad examination of your overall health on the cheap.

Okay, so what now?

I asked the same thing to Larry. If I’m healthy now, what do I need to do going down the line to make sure that is still the case?

Here are the suggestion he made to me:

  1. Make a trip to the dentist every six months (he explained that untreated dental disease can cause serious heart-related problems in young people).
  2. Have a yearly doctor’s visit for a physical exam and review of any changes to my health.
  3. Check my blood pressure on some sort of a consistent, established basis (monthly is okay).
  4. Do a testicular self exam once a month.
  5. Keep my tetanus shot up to date.

All in all, the yearly checkups going forward are really not of much cost. The initial office visit and physical exam was about $125, but follow-up visits are less expensive. I plan to have future blood work done at local health fairs (approximately $30-$50) and blood pressure check ups are free. In all honesty it’s more about putting myself into action than anything else.

I can almost guarantee that if you are young, and you are an athlete, and you are reading this article, you probably don’t have a physician and don’t make it a regular habit to visit one. Lets all take a step forward and do our part to change this so that we can remain healthy, keep racing, and enjoy our lives for the years to come. There’s a lot of racing still to be done.