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Healthy New Year!

Prioritizing Parental Wellness

Before takeoff, flight attendants remind passengers that oxygen masks will appear before them in the event of decompression. They tell us if we are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, we should secure our oxygen masks first then assist the
other person.

I like to believe the same is true for our wellness. Parents must take care of themselves and practice healthy living to better contend with the stresses of life and address the needs of dependents.

About this time two years ago, I began feeling poorly: my heart rate was rapid; I had chest discomfort; and my breathing was shallow and labored. It’s just stress, I told myself. I delayed seeing my doctor because I didn’t want to ask anyone to watch my kids. 

By the time I made it into my doctor’s office, I could barely speak more than a sentence or walk up a flight of stairs without struggling to breathe. My doctor ordered a stat CT scan of my chest and my diagnosis was bilateral pulmonary emboli, blood clots in both lungs. I spent three days in the hospital where I received blood thinners and oxygen through a mask.

As busy parents, amidst the chaos of modern life, how do we avoid neglecting our own health concerns when our schedules are packed and our sick-leave days are often used up on our children’s appointments? How can we make our health a priority so we are strong for those who need us?

When You Talk to a Doc

Amar Shah, MD, is a primary care physician at VitalCare Family Practice in Chesterfield. He understands that the busy schedules of many parents can be a barrier to health care. “My goal is to be as efficient as possible with office visits,” says Dr. Shah. “I strive to see patients at their appointment times and complete visits between thirty and forty-five minutes.”

Because Dr. Shah is very concerned about access to care, he offers his patients the option of tele-visits. “I’m able to hold real-time appointments, diagnose conditions, and prescribe medications,” says Shah. “Patients no longer have to travel to be evaluated, which eliminates another barrier to care.” For tele-visits, patients only need access to a smartphone and Healow, a free health and wellness app. 

Flexible scheduling and the option of tele-visits make it much more convenient for busy parents to stay on top of their annual screenings. According to Dr. Shah, there are a few essential items that must be addressed each year. “All patients need a physical, skin cancer screening, and a vital sign assessment. This should include checking blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol,” he says. “Additionally, women need a well woman exam each year, and beginning at age forty, an annual breast exam should be completed.” For men and women, the first colonoscopy should happen at age fifty. 

Some tests and screenings – such as mammograms, MRI tests, and CT scans – are offered at many different types of facilities throughout the Richmond area, and they often come with markedly different price tags. “There is a great deal of variability of cost of care in our area,” says Dr. Shah, who adds that healthcare consumers should to be aware of this and consult their doctors and insurance companies before scheduling necessary testing. Some good news for patients, however, is that beginning this month, hospitals will be required to post their standard charges online and update them annually.

While annual screenings and doctor visits are certainly an important aspect of wellness, patients actually play the most critical role in their overall health, and they must be accountable for their own health choices. Being in tune with one’s body and promptly reporting any major changes to a primary care provider are essential to overall health and wellness. 

Taking Steps Toward Improved Health

Smart preventive care begins with regular exercise, eight hours of sleep nightly, and a balanced diet. In addition to annual physicals, exercise, rest, and nutrition, Dr. Shah recommends the flu shot as one of the first steps toward improving overall health. “It automatically reduces mortality and morbidity,” Shah says. 

There are so many misconceptions about the flu and the flu shot, though. Influenza, a highly contagious respiratory virus that often occurs in epidemics, can be confused with other illnesses such as the common cold and the stomach virus. Because some of the symptoms are the same, people may think they have the flu when they actually have another illness. 

Additionally, some patients avoid the flu shot because they believe they contracted the flu after receiving the vaccine. Others say they have never had the flu or the flu shot, so why get vaccinated now? Dr. Shah’s response: “No one can predict when or if they will contract the flu virus. Get the flu shot early in the season before it mutates. It takes two weeks for the body to build immunity, and the earlier you receive the shot, the more likely you are to build that immunity before mutation occurs.” Furthermore, the flu vaccine is proven to prevent flu and the spread of the flu. Dr. Shah says, “If you do contract influenza, symptoms will likely not be as severe if you have had the flu shot.” Most experts agree that even halfway into January, it still makes sense to get a flu shot.

Immunizations mark one of the biggest ways in which we are better off health-wise than generations before us. But in other areas, primarily concerning diet and nutrition, we have regressed. Because of challenging work schedules, we often make poor dietary choices. That means we need to take care of our “gut health.” 

How many times have you seen that term in online advertising? Despite its buzzword status, it is a real thing, and we often overlook the importance of digestion in relation to our overall wellness. “We need a proper balance of fiber, healthy fat, protein, carbohydrates, and probiotics,” Dr. Shah says, adding that what we don’t consume through food, we can take in in the form of supplements.

“Another major modern concern is that many of us have lost the ability to cook at home,” says Dr. Shah. Add that to the accessibility of convenient or fast food, and it’s a double whammy for our collective gut health. Dr. Shah says that he tries to live by his own recommendations, and either he or his wife cooks a nutritious dinner for the family most evenings. 

While dining out can be very unhealthy, it is often necessary for busy, traveling adults, and it helps to remember there are healthier options. We can request items to be prepared without butter or sauce, order foods grilled instead of fried, and we can drink water as opposed to soft drinks. “Most restaurants have calories listed next to menu items,” notes Shah. “We don’t have to be in the dark about how many calories we are consuming.”

Mental Wellness and Stress Are Part of the Equation

In fact, with current technology and improved access to care, we don’t have to be in the dark about any part of our overall wellness. This includes our mental health as well. The stresses of working, parenting, and caring for aging family members can certainly impact an individual’s emotional and psychological well-being. And while mental health is fundamental to overall wellness, it carries a certain stigma that other medical conditions do not. “It is my goal to break through those barriers by offering secure, private visits, promoting empathy, and educating my patients,” says Dr. Shah. “We automatically want to give labels and define people by the medicines they are taking, but that is not appropriate. Some people need to control their cholesterol by taking a statin, and some people need to manage anxiety with counseling and medication. They cannot help it, and there is no shame in truly needing a medication.”

Taking Small Steps to Improved Wellness

While the start of a new year is a great time for positive change, Dr. Shah doesn’t recommend making traditional resolutions. “We tend to not keep resolutions,” he states. “It’s better to pick a small thing in your life you want to change and work with your physician to bring it to action.” Shah emphasizes the importance of an attainable goal. “It should be something easily achieved, at first. For a somewhat inactive person, walking three days per week would be a good start. The idea is to make the change a permanent one and not something that you stop at the end of January.”

Regardless of how involved your weekly routine is and how easy it may be to delay scheduling a medical appointment, Dr. Shah warns that there are some health symptoms busy adults should never ignore. Some of these include: severe headaches, abdominal pain, memory loss, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, and difficulty breathing. All of these warrant immediate medical attention.

Few things in life are more frightening than health scares, and I learned my lesson two years ago. I no longer allow lack of childcare or my work schedule to keep me from an urgent medical appointment. As busy parents, we cannot put our health concerns on the back burner. We must prioritize our wellness because we have children. Our good health and longevity are the best gifts we can give our kids. 

There is no better time than now to make your own wellness a top priority. Schedule an appointment, meet with your doctor, assess your vitals, and make a personalized plan that includes nutritional guidance, necessary screenings, and immunizations.  Take control of your own wellness this year, and put on that oxygen mask – metaphorically speaking, of course.

10 Tips for a Healthier 2019

1. Schedule a physical and discuss health concerns and goals with your doctor.

2. Get a flu shot, if you haven’t already. Flu season doesn’t end until April.

3. Eliminate fried foods from your diet immediately and prepare more meals at home.

4. If you dine at a restaurant, choose healthier options and drink water.

5. Get eight hours of sleep each night. If you are getting less, your body is in a constant state of trying to make up for the loss.

6. Practice proper handwashing. Hand sanitizer is an acceptable alternative, but it is not a replacement.

7. Get out of your seat more throughout the day. Excessive sitting results in back pain and other health issues.

8. Begin improving your health with small, attainable goals.

9. Listen to your body and tell your doctor about any changes you notice.

10. Be aware of the signs of serious illness – and never ignore them.

Melissa Face is the author of “I Love You More Than Coffee,” an essay collection for parents who love coffee a lot and their kids ... a little more. She lives in Prince George with her husband and two children and teaches at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School. Read more at
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