Close to My Heart: I Used to Think My Job Was Killing Me, Until the Assignment That Saved My Life

Share
Copy
To better understand my ingredients, Agus mailed me a sterile tube a couple weeks before our interview. After sending back some spit, technicians as his company, Navigenics, scanned my DNA for the health risk markers of 40 different common diseases.

"Everything we see here is what we call a predisposition," he said, holding the results. "So it's not going to happen but it's just saying your likelihood of developing certain diseases."

He continued, "If you look at Alzheimer's disease, which is what we're all worried about, the national average 9 percent. You're 5 percent."

"Phew, that's a relief," was the obvious reply.

"That's a relief but it's still not zero," Agus said. "One of the big criticisms of a test like this is I just told you you're lower than the average. So you don't worry about it at all and you do behaviors that may increase your risk."

He explained how I'm below the average risk for a brain aneurysm, colon cancer and -- get this -- a heart attack. But that's only because the average American man has a 42 percent chance of having a Fred Sanford-style grabber -- 42 percent! My average is 38 percent and helps explain the dairy-induced coral reef growing in my ticker.

"You can blame your parents," Agus said. "You inherited a predisposition to atherosclerotic disease."

READ: 6 Blood Tests You Should Ask Your Doctor To Do

Now, here's the rub: This DNA information and the high cholesterol warnings that came from my blood test would have given me cause to worry -- a bit. But they would not have shaken me to the core like seeing the CT scan of my heart. So it was a $1,300 ride through that radiation doughnut that probably saved my life -- a test most insurance company would probably reject and some doctors would resist, for fear of "false-positives." This is one the main things Agus is trying to change.

"Reimbursement for preventive medicine's always difficult in our country," he told me. "You know, the problem is most people change health plans all the time. So if you're that health plan, why should you spend money on something that's not going to affect a person until a decade from now? And so one of things we really have to change is we have to push prevention... a heart attack costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. A couple hundred dollar tests along with a drug can prevent it. Obviously it's cost effective as a return on investment."

As for the fears that CT scans could both scare and bankrupt a person by showing a scary speck that turns out to be nothing, Agus argues that is no reason to reject them entirely.

"There are false positives or false negatives with any technology," he said. "It matters who does it and where it's done. And so, like with anything, any person can pick up a camera and take a picture. But very few people are a Cartier-Bresson, one of the great photographers. It's the same thing here."

The more we talked, the more the initial shock faded and I began to realize just how lucky I was to get this assignment. Because the fixes are incredibly easy.

To keep the blood pumping properly, I'll take a statin and a baby aspirin. Since my HDL (good cholesterol) levels are in fine shape, he explained that I don't need a low-fat diet, but a "good-fat diet," -- olive oil, canola oil, smart-heart eggs and cold-water fish -- eaten on a consistent schedule. When you have lunch at noon one day and 3 p.m. the next, you're releasing stress hormones that can hurt in the long run, Agus said.

Instead of hitting the gym hard in the morning and then sitting all day (which can be as bad for you as smoking), the doctor encourages more movement throughout the day. I now carry a FitBit monitor to let me know how much I'm moving and how well I'm sleeping.

And he ordered me to skip the fish oil capsules and multivitamin in favor of the freshest real food I can find.

"You're not vitamin deficient," he told me. "You look at all the large studies with vitamins and most of them have caused problems rather than benefits. And you don't need to be on them. So real food, regular schedule, live healthy. That's the key."

And that is how I turned into the kind of person I used to mock.

I dug the treadmill out of the back of the garage, and actually walked five miles while writing this piece. And for the first time in my life, instead of bratwurst, I grilled salmon during last weekend's Packers game. And I'm pretty sure that's why they lost. But that is a small price to pay if I can keep my daughter from sprinkling ashes on that mountain for another 50 years.

Check out the ABC News special section on The End of Illness.

Page
  • 1
  • |
  • 2
null
Join the Discussion
You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...