By Jim Nunnelly, Contributing Writer
A successful gentleman was asked, by a reporter, what is the secret to your success?”. He answered simply that the secret was “good judgment.” The reporter followed with, “how did you get that?” The gentleman quickly responded, “experience.” Then, really confused, the reporter continued, “how did you get that?” The successful gentleman responded, “bad choices.”
That story mirrors my life, especially as it relates to my much-improved life after suffering a combined heart and diabetes scare more than five years ago. Let’s start with my “good choices.” Today, I am at the gym, doing my usual five-times-a-week, light workout. I say “light” only because it is no longer stressful or painful. In fact, if I don’t go to the gym, I start to hurt all over, feel useless and a bit frustrated. On the way to my routinely scheduled morning workout, I actually begin to feel better. At first, it felt silly to ride a stationary bike and lift weights that a 5-year-old could lift, and stretch up and down with an inflated ball, 10 times larger than a basketball. That’s now what I call practicing “good choices.”
Now, let me tell you about the bad choices that led to me currently feeling like I am 40 instead of in my 70s.
Eight years ago, I led a very hectic life. For me, it was “get up and go”…anywhere, anytime, for anything. Just go. In my mind, all the moving around had to be good for my mental health. People depended on me and I helped everyone that requested my help. Even though I was blessed, I didn’t feel blessed. I didn’t realize it, but I was tearing myself down. I was sleeping and eating terribly, but still kept going and going, and doing more and more. Until one day, it finally caught up with me.
I was on the way to the grocery store with my grandson and started to feel unwell. My body hurt all over – not a lot, but enough for me to know that something just wasn’t right. I quickly took my grandson home and drove myself to Research Hospital. The medical team quickly concluded that I was having a “heart event.” I was scared, but kept wondering what was going on with me as the attendants strapped me to a gurney, took my blood pressure and asked me questions about the day’s activities, as well as why I had come in? A cardiologist (Willie Lawrence, MD), I had met socially a few years back, happened to see me as he was leaving for the day, and stopped to ask the same questions. This time though, he was literally taking over the conversation and took the lead for my care. It became clear to me that something awful had happened. My “bad choices” were coming back to haunt me.
I even had to remain in the hospital for a few days, with all the “bad choice reminders” — the tubes, beeping machines, the TV-like monitors and countless medical staff endlessly taking blood. Finally, after a rather routine procedure, it was determined that I had clogged arteries. The procedure involved placing what they refer to as a stent which allows easier blood flow into and out of my heart. It was ironic, but even with all the accompanying serenity of the moment, I was actually feeling better knowing that I was still alive and a second chance was on the way. I was really happy to return home, I kept thinking to myself that I didn’t want this to happen again. I had to make changes. My bad choices had to be converted.
Before I was discharged from the hospital, I was introduced to a nutritionist. Her language was less urgent, however, she assured me that “it [my health] doesn’t have to be this way.” Thus, she proceeded to enroll me in an exercise class, right across the hall from the cardiologist’s office. So, here I am, I went every day, and every day, the team charted my weight. Back in the day, I had been as skinny as a rail. Now my weight had ballooned to 262 pounds! I didn’t realize that I was that huge. I became very familiar with the mantra, “get a handle on all that excess weight.” I also became familiar with terms like meal-planning, portion-control, and ideal weight and began to think about my bad choices.
After the classes, I enrolled at a community center to keep it going. I noticed that the more I went to the gym, the less I hated it. I saw others struggling with their diabetes, but attending anyway. I hated the equipment because it made me ache, but I kept going, encouraged by the new friends I had made. At some point, I stopped feeling like a “fitness nerd” and started to feel more like “a new and improved me.” The bike I hated became a friend. The weights I shunned became a strength symbol, and that big, round stretching ball became my own, personal “promise keeper” that I would not let this happen to myself again.
So far, I haven’t. I currently weigh 215 pounds, and at age 75, I feel like I am 45. I look 60 and move with ease and confidence. My diabetes is also under control, with my A1C well within normal limits at 5.1. In spite of all of the accomplishments and opportunities I have had, I now feel really successful. I have turned that corner and practice good judgments each and every day.
We all must pay attention to our bodies’ warning system, especially any kind of chest discomfort. Kansas City is fortunate to have such superior heart event response teams. But the day-to-day decisions you make are just as effective. Exercise and a healthy diet is always a better option over the long run.
Jim Nunnelly was one of the first African Americans to graduate from the University of Missouri in 1966. He received the President’s full ride scholarship to the University of Michigan, School of Public Health. Nunnelly collaborated on the plan to develop Kansas City’s first in the nation community health center called Wayne Minor (now Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center). Nunnelly was the first Executive Director of COMBAT, a national model program focused on prevention and treatment of alcohol and drug abuse. Nunnelly served on President Clinton’s Committee on Substance Abuse and served a six year terms on the Greater Kansas City Healthcare Foundation Board.