Hiking with Strangers

Again.

Now that I’m back in shape, I’m very interested in staying in shape. That means exercise.

I tried the gym in Wickenburg, but soon got tired of waiting for the seniors using the equipment to stop resting on the equipment when I was trying to go through my workout routine. I’ve got some weights at the house and I use them pretty regularly now to build back muscle tone, especially in my upper arms.

For other exercise, however, I’ll stick to the thing I like best: hiking.

Recent Hikes

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’ve gone out of my way to find people to hike with. These folks start out as perfect strangers, but if I hike with them repeatedly, they become friends. So I basically kill two birds with one stone: I get exercise doing something I like to do and I make new friends.

(I should mention here that losing my husband has made all this possible. With him around, I didn’t do much of anything outdoors — and I certainly didn’t have any opportunities to meet new people. He’s not interested in expanding his horizons. He’s just interested in staying in his cocoon with the people he’s comfortable with. That means about six friends for dining out and going to the occasional ball game. That “social life” was the absolute pits for me. I’m so glad I’m able to do so much better without him.)

At West Fork Hike
Two of my friends from the Phoenix Atheist Meetup Group on the West Fork hike. The primary focus of the hike was to enjoy the fall colors.

The first group I started hiking with was the Phoenix Atheist Meetup Group. This is a huge group of people with many activities every week. But a subset of the group does weekly hikes — usually on Sunday mornings when other folks are at church. I’ve been on three hikes with them so far: Grapevine Canyon (Mayer), Soldier Pass (Sedona), and West Fork (Sedona). They are a great group of people and I really enjoy their company. I’ll be doing another hike with them in a week or so out in the Superstition Mountains.

I also hiked with another Meetup group, the Arizona Sierra Club Singles. Their hike was close to home for me: Vulture Peak. I didn’t blog about it, mostly because I didn’t have much to say that was positive. The group was small, they started the hike too late in the day — after 9 AM — so it was brutally hot on the return trip, and they weren’t very friendly. Indeed, each person seemed interested in hiking alone or with just one other person. No one waited for anyone else, no one seemed to care whether the last person was having trouble keeping up. I made the hike to the saddle quicker than I had ever done before, then made the tedious climb to the top of the peak to join the four or five other people up there. No one seemed to care whether I fell to my death in the hand-over-hand climbing part that really is dangerous. And when I got up there, triumphant, exhausted, and sweating like a pig, they were all ready to come back down. Not wanting to be left up there alone, I hurried after them, spending less than five minutes on the peak. Needless to say, I probably won’t be hiking with them again. I just wasn’t impressed.

It’s interesting to me how two groups of people can be so different. The Sierra Club members, who supposedly care about the environment, etc, were all caught up in their own little worlds, completely unfriendly and mostly uncaring about newcomers. The Atheists, who are frowned upon by god-fearing Christians who consider them immoral and perhaps evil, were friendly and caring, eager to make me feel welcome, even on my first hike with them. Whodathunkit? So much for stereotypes.

Hiking with the Around the Bend Friends

When I mentioned on Facebook that I’d be spending a few days in Las Vegas for business and was interested in doing a hike while I was there, one of my Facebook friends suggested the Around the Bend Friends hiking group. I followed the link and found a simple Website that showed pictures from recent hikes and a calendar of upcoming hikes. I was amazed to see that these people had a hike schedule almost every single day. When I got to Las Vegas and realized my Saturday morning was wide open, I checked the site again, found two hikes scheduled for that morning, and joined the group for the shorter of the two: Pine Creek in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. From the hike description:

The leisurely Saturday hike leading off the month will involve another partial loop route, but it will be somewhat shorter at 3 miles. After passing the Wilson homestead foundation, the trail crosses the creek just after the start of the Arnight Trail, then branches off heading upstream along the creek toward the base of Mescalito Peak. One more crossing of the creek to the north bank involves some very minor scrambling. Overall, the hike is rated easy to moderate and gains between 100 and 200 feet of elevation. The group will meet at Best Buy for an 8:30 AM departure.

I met the group as scheduled in the Best Buy parking lot on the west end of Charleston Boulevard. I was among the first to arrive. I signed in as a guest and chatted with the hike leader, Rick, before dashing across the street to get a cup of coffee at Burger King. (Don’t ask.) At 8:30 sharp, Rick did a brief introduction to the hike and the 16 people who had gathered climbed into cars and headed out to Red Rock Canyon park.

Pine Creek Trailhead View
A waning gibbous moon is setting behind the mountains in this view from the Pine Creek trailhead.

I drove alone, top down, enjoying the cool morning air. It was less than 10 miles to the park entrance and then another 10 miles to the trailhead. The road wound through the desert, past amazing red rock formations and parking areas for overlooks and trailheads. At the Pine Creek parking areas, I took the first parking spot I could find and climbed out to join the group at the trailhead.

The Around the Bend Friends bill themselves as “a group of young-at-heart people age 50 and over who participate in outdoor activities in the areas and states surrounding Las Vegas.” That’s a good description. At 51, I was one of the youngest in attendance. But these weren’t old folk like those catching their breath on the exercise equipment at Wickenburg’s gym. These people were active and physically fit. And, as we headed down the trail, it was clear that they were light on their feet and well able to scramble around and over the rocks in our path. Yes, they were older folks. But I know plenty of young people that wouldn’t be able to keep up with them.

The terrain was rugged, with more rock formations and lots of almost salmon colored sand under foot. The trail wound through the desert, passing the ruins of an old homestead before descending down to a spring-fed creek. There were plenty of photo opportunities that included not only trees turning yellow for autumn, but views of the distinctive Mescalito Peak.

Autumn Colors Along Pine Creek
Autumn colors along the Pine Creek Trail.

Mescalito PeakMescalito Peak from the Wilson homestead ruins.

We crossed the creek by hopping from rock to rock, then followed the narrow trail that snaked along the other side in the shade. I was surprised at the vegetation: a mix of manzanita and the biggest holly bushes I’d ever seen, along with cacti and other native plants. Because of the relative moisture in the area, the plants grew large and close to the trail. There was a lot of scrambling around rocks and bushes along the way.

The pace was moderate — not too slow to be boring, but not too fast to leave people behind. Rick was in charge of making sure we all stayed together and he led the group accordingly. Although we did stretch out several times, he paused to make sure we’d all gathered together before going on again. It was nice to see someone taking responsibility for the hike. (The Atheist group uses handheld radios for the same purpose, mostly because of the wide range of hiking skills among members of the group.)

My Fellow Hikers
My fellow hikers.

Rock wall with climbers

Climbers

Climbers

The rock wall where we saw the climbers. The insets are blown up from the original image; not clear but clear enough to see the climbers.

Back on the creek bed, where the trail began its return loop, we stopped for a rest in the shade. We’d been hiking about an hour. We chatted among ourselves while munching energy bars and pieces of fruit and sipping water. It was about 10 AM and it was cool in the shade. One of the members looked up at the rock wall we could see between the trees and spotted climbers. We counted four of them; we met others on their way to the rock wall on our return hike.

Once we’d rested for a while, we continued the hike’s loop trail, returning along the base of the rock wall in the sun. Although I’d started the hike with a sweatshirt on, I soon stripped it off. The sun was strong, but not yet overpowering. I really felt its heat on my black jeans. If the hike had been later in the day, I probably would have roasted. (But then again, I probably would have worn shorts.)

I handled the climb back up to the trailhead admirably. In my fat days, I would have needed at least three rest stops along the way. But with 45 pounds less weight to lug around, I didn’t even get winded on the way up. I was left again to wonder why the hell it took me so long to get that extra weight off — and why other people don’t do the same.

Rick passed around the sign in sheet for each of us to sign out. It was after 11 AM; I had four hours to kill before my afternoon meeting. I climbed back into the car, put the top down, and headed back to the city.

Hiking with Strangers

Would I hike with the Around the Bend Friends again? You bet!

With resources like Meetup to find hiking groups and other groups like the Around the Bend Friends out there, it’s easy to get out for a hike with others. Even if they start out as strangers, they can soon be friends.

32 Pounds is a Lot to Carry Around

And I got proof of that today.

I like to hike. I like taking long walks on trails — especially cool, wooded trails winding alongside canyons or rivers. I love to be out in nature, to breathe the fresh air, to smell the plants around me. I really like hiking in solitary places, where I’m not likely to run into another group of hikers with their annoying children or loud chatter, so I can let my dog hike off-leash with me, running ahead, sniffing around, and then darting after me to catch up when she falls behind.

Unfortunately, I was never able to handle uphill climbs. I always got short of breath on any hike that required me to do any climbing at all. I took frequent rest breaks, often holding back some of my companions. It was as if my lungs just weren’t up to the task. This goes way back — I recall doing a hike at Lake George not long after meeting my soon-to-be ex-husband back when I was only 22 and being the second to last person to reach the mountaintop fire tower that was our destination.

Downhill was not an issue. I can hike downhill all day long. Doesn’t matter how steep or how far. Gravity apparently helps out enough that my lungs can deal with it.

Of course, the situation didn’t get any better as I aged or gained weight. Last year I went for a hike in Wenatchee to Saddle Rock with my neighbor and wound up sending him on ahead because I felt bad about him waiting for me. It was a fact of my life, something I dealt with. But not something I wanted friends to have to deal with, too.

So imagine my surprise when I took a short hike this afternoon up a mountain road with an elevation gain of 350 feet in less than half a mile — and didn’t need to stop once for a rest.

View During My HikeI’d tried the same hike back in the end of July — just over a month ago! — and got less than 1/4 mile with four rest breaks. But today, I “motored” up the hill like it was a walk in the park, passed the gate that was my original destination, and walked another 1/2 mile beyond it. I was rewarded with a stroll through tall pine trees and an incredible view of the valley beyond.

I did work up a tiny bit of a sweat on the walk, but I think that’s because it was still pretty warm out — maybe even in the low 80s. Never really got my pulse going, though. And on the way back (when I used GPSTrack to measure the elevation change and distance of the hike), I averaged 3.3 MPH.

I can only assume my newfound energy — or excess lung capacity — is due to the 32 pounds of extra weight I’ve dropped in the past 11 weeks. What else could explain my sudden ability to climb hills?

A gateI do know for certain that the weight loss made it possible for me to slip between the bars of this gate instead of trying to open or climb it. I don’t know the bar spacing, but I know damn well I would not have been able to pass through three months ago.

Regular readers of this blog might be wondering why I keep blogging about my weight. Simply put: I’m amazed by the change. If I knew that I’d look this good and feel this good with 30 pounds off my body, I would have done this years ago. Or never have gotten so overweight.

And I’m also writing this to encourage other people who are overweight to do something about it. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, there are sacrifices. But the way you’ll feel when that weight is off is worth all the effort and sacrifice you made.

Like me, you’ll feel like a new person. I promise.

As for me, my new goal is only 10 pounds away. I should be there before I go back to Arizona in October. Can’t wait to get into those old jeans stored away in the closet!

My Experience with Aging, Weight, and Medifast

What I can tell you from my experience — and how you can avoid having to eat out of a box.

I was a skinny kid, all skin and bones. I was active — all kids who lived in the suburbs were back then — and I had good genes. My dad, after all, was 6’4″ tall and skinny as a pole.

It wasn’t until I got into junior high school that I started filling out. In eighth grade, I was probably close to my full height of 5’8″ and I was wearing jeans with a 31″ waist. I probably weighed about 130 pounds.

My Metabolism and Weight

In 1978, I started college. At the time, I still lived at home in Kings Park, NY on Long Island. I commuted to school in Hempstead, NY, a distance of about 35 miles. I also had a part time job in a clothing store near home and worked about 20 hours a week. Without any effort on my part, all that teen fat fell off me. Indeed, I couldn’t put weight on if I tried. By the spring of 1980, when I finally moved on campus, I weighed 105 pounds. I looked skeletal, like the poster girl for an eating disorder clinic.

The school meal plan cured me. Those warm, soft dinner rolls! The weight came back on slowly. When I graduated in May 1982, I weighted about 130 pounds again. I looked good — even in a bikini, which is hard to imagine now.

Fortunately, my metabolism stayed high throughout my 20s. Unfortunately, I went on the pill, which changes a woman’s normal hormonal balance. I blame that hormone change for the 10 or so pounds I gained in my 20s.

After that, as I aged, my weight rose slowly but steadily, year after year. As many of us age, we become less active. I spent a lot of time sitting in my car commuting or sitting at my desk writing books to earn a living. I wasn’t running around, eating snacks on the run instead of full meals. I had money and could afford to eat well. And I did. Very well.

Hints of a Weight Problem

My husband and I went on a Caribbean cruise back in 2002. It was the same year my brother got married. I was one of the bridesmaids and I had a typically silly dress I had to wear. I took the dress along on the cruise as my “formal wear.” The dress was a size 14 and it was snug. When I got back from the cruise, I tipped the scales at 180 pounds.

Ouch.

I started watching what I ate. I got my weight down to the 170-175 pound range. If you looked at me, you wouldn’t say, “She’s fat.” You’d say, “She’s a big girl.” I was.

My husband, in the meantime, had also porked up a bit. He was weighing in a little over 200 pounds. He’s 5’10” tall and was always very athletic. But by that time, we’d moved to Arizona where he couldn’t participate in the men’s sports he’d enjoyed back in New Jersey. He was losing muscle tone. Nothing serious, but we both noticed it.

We got on Atkins. Atkins is basically a zero-carb diet. And you can say what you like about its nutritional value or faults, but if you stick to it, it works. In a very short period of time, he got down to about 180 pounds and I got down to 160.

Captain MariaThat’s where I was when I worked as a pilot at the Grand Canyon in the summer of 2004. 160 pounds is a perfect weight for a helicopter pilot. It’s light so you can take on more passengers, cargo, or fuel. But it’s not too light to fly solo in most helicopters without adding ballast.

As for Atkins, it might work, but it’s a horrible diet for life. I simply couldn’t stick with it.

Body, Mind, and Weight Changes

In 2006, I was diagnosed with a tumor in my uterus. The “cure” was a radical hysterectomy — they basically cut me open and took out all my internal reproductive organs. (I have a cesarean scar without ever having had a baby!) Losing these parts wasn’t a huge deal for me, since I didn’t plan to have children. But it did push me through menopause at age 44.

Fortunately, the tumor was not malignant and I didn’t need any further treatment for it.

Unfortunately, menopause is a huge change in a woman’s body chemistry. Without certain hormones being produced, metabolism changes. Or at least that’s what seems to happen. I certainly porked up afterward, shooting back up to 180 pounds in no time.

Time marched on. My life changed. My relationship changed. I worked hard to keep my weight from rising. But this past winter, when I was back in Arizona, away from my friends, in a dying marriage, I ate for comfort. I ate too much. I ate the wrong things.

And I gained weight. When I left Arizona in May, I was 195 pounds.

And I could see it. Not only were all my clothes tight — some too tight to wear! — but when I looked in the mirror, I looked like an overweight, middle-aged woman. This only fed my overall feelings of depression from loneliness and my dismal marital situation.

Knowing How Much is too Much

There are lots of resources on the web to help you understand what you should weigh and why. Many of those resources go into topics like Body Mass Index and take age and other factors into consideration. I’ll keep things simple here and concentrate mainly on weight.

Healthy Weight for WomenThe Rush University Medical Center publishes a simple table of healthy weights. I took the numbers on the Female side of the table, fed them into Excel, and got the following simple chart. A healthy weight is between the two colored lines for your height.

According to this data, I should weigh 126 to 154 pounds. I was 41 pounds overweight. Ouch!

BMI CalculatorThe U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a bunch of information about healthy weight. Its Healthy Weight Tools page includes a link to a BMI Calculator. Using this calculator for my maximum healthy weight (per Rush University’s table), my BMI would be 23.4, which is considered within “Normal” range. So is 160 pounds, which is what I wanted to be.

I should mention here that the added weight was also causing health problems. Although high blood pressure and stroke run in my family, it wasn’t until I gained all that weight that my blood pressure rose beyond what’s healthy. My fear of stroke — and my desire to keep working as a pilot — forced me to get it under control with medication. I’m not a big believer in taking pills and it bothered me that I had to rely on them to keep healthy.

My Solution: Medifast

With the blood pressure situation on my mind and a divorce looming, I realized that I had to take action. I needed to take control, lose weight, and get healthy again.

Around this time, I ran into my friend Mike T. Mike’s a pilot with US Air. He’s in his late 50s and was always a big guy. I hadn’t seen him for at least two years, although we were sometimes in touch via email. When I ran into him at an FAA meeting at PHX tower, he looked remarkably different. Turns out, he’d lost 80 pounds.

Mike wound up working with me in Washington on my cherry drying contracts. When he brought his helicopter up in May with his wife and a friend, we all got together with another pilot friend, Jim, for dinner in Mattawa, WA. That’s when I discovered that his wife had lost 70 pounds. That’s right: between the two of them, they’d lost what I should weigh.

How did they do it? Medifast.

They told us a little about it at dinner. Cheryl (Mike’s wife) is a “health coach.” You can read her story on her “Take Shape for Life” website. You can also see before and after photos of her and Mike. She didn’t try to sell it to either me or Jim (who is also overweight). But by the time dinner was over, Jim was thinking hard about it. A few days later, he’d signed up. A week later, I signed up.

Medifast is a combination of specially formulated, packaged foods with a meal plan. You eat six (yes, six) meals a day. Five of those meals come out of boxes. The sixth meal is a “lean and green” that consists of lean protein (meat, chicken, or fish) plus a low carb green vegetables.

As I mentioned elsewhere, most of the box items are powder or powder plus other ingredients. You add water, then either shake, cook, or microwave. Some of the items are prepared, like snack bars or crackers. There’s a decent variety of items, so you don’t have to eat the same thing all the time.

The important part of the plan — which I didn’t understand at first — is not how much you eat but how you spread those meals out throughout the day. Generally speaking, you need 2 to 3 hours between meals. I try to eat at 6 AM, 9 AM, noon, 3 PM, 6 PM, and 9 PM.

At first, the plan was very difficult for me. I’m a foodie and love to eat good food. Although many of the Medifast options are palatable, I could never call any of them good. (Well, maybe the chocolate pudding.) I’m also a big eater and when you put a big plate of tasty food in front of me, I’m more likely to clean that plate than leave anything on it. And the Medifast meal portions are small.

The meals are formulated to be low in calories, fat, and carbs. For example, I had chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast. (Well, technically it’s pancake because I make one big one.) 90 calories, 1/2 gram fat, and 11 grams net carbs. The shake I just had for meal #2 is 110 calories, 1 gram of fat, and 9 grams net carbs. The chocolate pudding I like so much is 110 calories, 1 gram fat, and 11 grams net carbs. At the same time, the meals are fortified with vitamins and minerals so you’re sure to get required nutrients.

So what the plan does is spread a small amount of nutritionally balanced caloric intake throughout the day. Your body is eating less, but it never tells itself to go into “starvation mode” and burn muscle instead of fat. And the nutrients are there, so you really never feel like you’re dieting. With normal activity (or a little extra exercise) and a lot of water to stay hydrated and flush your system out, the fat falls off.

Really.

And the good part about all this is that over time, you get used to the box food and eating less. So while the first month was miserable for me, the second was easier. I’m halfway into month 3 now and I’m not suffering at all.

I should mention here that I don’t stick to the plan like glue. Occasionally, I’ll go out to eat with friends and eat a salad that isn’t exactly a “lean and green” meal. In every single case, I’ll only eat half of the restaurant portion and bring the other half home for the next day’s lean and green meal. Amazingly, half a restaurant salad satisfies me now. I’ve cut back on my wine consumption — I probably drink just one glass a week now. And although fruit is verboten, you can’t stop me from eating fresh cherries and blueberries that I pick myself every evening.

My results? Well, I weigh myself daily and write down the results on a chart I keep on the back of the medicine cabinet door. The results either motivate or scold me. Over time, they’ve motivated me to stick with it. I also measure my bust/waist/hips once a month.

I fed the weight numbers into an Excel spreadsheet and charted them. I also did some math on the measurements.

Drum roll, please….

My Weight, ChartedIn 2-1/2 months, I’ve lost 28 pounds and a total of 11 inches, 7 of which are from my waist. I am less than 8 pounds from my goal weight of 160 pounds and am considering taking it all the way down to 150 — a new goal I’m confident I can reach.

I feel great! I have lots of energy and (other than bouts of depression caused by my divorce woes) feel really upbeat and happy. I feel positive about my health and my future. I’ve even gotten off one of my blood pressure meds.

My clothes are no longer tight. In fact, some have become so loose that they look silly on me. My big reward when I reach my goal weight is the new wardrobe I’ll be buying. That and the ability to get into a few pairs of old jeans in my closet back home.

I can honestly say that losing weight was one of the best decisions I made in my life. I only regret that I let my body get to the point where it was necessary.

And yes, you can expect some “after” photos when I reach my goal. There are no “before” photos since I really didn’t want my photo taken when I was at my heaviest. In a way, I wish I had a fatty picture to share. It would remind me of the place I never want to be again.

I’ll also fill you in on my transition off the box food to regular food. Although I had my doubts in the beginning, I now think can do it. We’ll see.

Jim’s Results

Oddly, as I was writing this post, Jim called. I’d forwarded him a link to the weight table I mentioned earlier, along with my current status. He wanted to congratulate me.

We both had the same goal: to be 160-pound pilots. He’s now below that goal and shooting for 150. His wife just got on the program and has begun to lose weight, too. They’re supporting each other for better health.

Don’t Let It Happen to You!

Of course, I got fat by letting the weight creep up slowly throughout years and years of my life. I think this is what happens to many people — especially those who don’t have weight problems when they’re young and more active. A pound here, three pounds there, five pounds over the holidays that don’t all come off in the spring. It all adds up. You can accept these small weight changes because they’re small. But they’re also insidious. And if you let them, they’ll destroy your health and well-being.

My advice? Consult a reputable healthy weight chart to see what you should weigh. If you’re just a little bit more than that, begin changing your eating habits to eat less and to eat smarter. Just avoiding high carb foods like bread, potatoes, and pasta should be a big help. You might also consult a blog post I wrote a few years ago when it was easier for me to control my weight: “8 Ways to Lose Weight without Dieting or Exercise.”

But if you’re quite a bit beyond what you should be, maybe its time for drastic measures. Medifast is drastic, but it’s healthy and it does work. You can visit Cheryl’s website to learn more. Don’t let the cost of the food scare you off — remember, you won’t be buying much else in the way of groceries, so you really won’t be spending much more than you usually do on food. Or find some other plan that works for you.

But do it now. Don’t wait until it gets so out of control that you can’t help yourself.

Postscript:

I wrote this blog post on Tuesday morning. I didn’t post it right away because I’d already published two other posts. Instead, I scheduled it for Wednesday.

On Tuesday afternoon, I went into East Wenatchee to get a haircut. Afterwards, I hit the mall where I stopped into Macy’s to see about buying a new pair of jeans. All of my jeans, which were tight when I arrived here in May, are now very loose. My kinda sexy tight black jeans, which I like to wear with my cowboy boots when I go out with friends, were no longer either tight or remotely sexy. I wanted to replace them.

I was a size 14. I grabbed a bunch of pants in size 12, thinking to myself: “Wouldn’t it be great if I were a whole size smaller?” When I tried them on, I was shocked. They were loose on me, too.

I went back out onto the sales floor and grabbed the same collection of jeans in size 10. And guess what? They fit!

I’m now two sizes smaller than I was 10 weeks ago.

I have not been a size 10 since I was in my 30s. I’m thinking that if I stick to this and get down to 150, I might be back to a size 8. I haven’t been there since I was in my 20s.

To celebrate, I bought a pair of jeans, a denim skirt, four shirts (size medium!), three pairs of socks, four pairs of lace panties (why the hell not?), and three pairs of shoes, including black faux alligator heels.

I would have bought a pair of earrings to replace the ones my husband gave me that I always wore, but I couldn’t find anything I liked. I’ll keep looking.

In the meantime, I really like the new me.

Weird Health Problems? Check Your Meds!

While trying to track down the cause of one weird symptom, I find the cause of another.

I’m in generally good health. A bit overweight, perhaps, but still able — and willing! — to move around pretty well. The weight issue and genetics is probably the cause of my high blood pressure, which has been kept under control by medication for the past four or five years.

Unfortunately, one of those medications was costing a small fortune — $80/month. (Yes, I know that you or someone else you know probably takes or has taken medicine that costs a lot more. If it makes you feel better, do tell us about it in the comments. Sadly, costly medicine is a fact of life here in the U.S. Remember that when you vote for politicians who support Big Pharma and insurance companies. Can I get back to what I was saying now?) I decided to see if there was a cheaper alternative when I began seeing a new doctor.

He agreed that Micardis (Telmisartan), which is what I was taking, was too expensive. He prescribed two other medications — Lisinopril and Amlodipine. Together, these pills would cost $32/month. A savings of almost $50.

I started taking them. I monitored my blood pressure with a home device. I had follow up visits. Everything was fine. Medicines were working and blood pressure was well within acceptable limits. End of story.

Or not?

Two Weird Symptoms

About a week or two ago, I began noticing two annoying little health problems. I didn’t think much of them and I don’t even know if they started at the same time.

One was an incessant ringing in my ears — mostly my left ear. Not loud. More like the kind of ringing you have in your ears about an hour after a rock concert at a big indoor venue. Like Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden (1977).

Yes, I know I’m a helicopter pilot and I’m subjected to loud noises quite often. But I also know that I spent $1,100 on a pair of Bose noise-canceling headsets for a reason. Plus, it’s not as if I’m flying every day. And yes, I do drive my Honda S2000 with the top down on the freeway and it is very noisy. But I don’t do that every day, either. And I’ve begun wearing earplugs on the highway just in case it is the car that’s causing the problem.

My ears are clean — I use Q-Tips after every shower. I have no other symptoms related to ear ringing, such as vertigo, headaches, etc. It’s a simple case of tinnitus that’s worse when I’m in quiet places and worse in the evening. Annoying when it goes on for more than a week and shows no chance of stopping.

The other weird symptom is a dry cough. Everyone gets these coughs now and then. You get a tickle in your throat and you cough. The more you cough, the more you feel like you need to cough. (Some of you out there might know another activity that sometimes causes a cough like that.) It a dry cough, though, and nothing comes up with it. Drinking water or sucking cough drops does not help. Oddly, blowing my nose — even if it’s dry — does help. The cough happens periodically throughout the day and wakes me — and my husband and likely the upstairs neighbor — in the middle of the night.

Normally for me, a cough like this signals the onset of a cold. First dry, then phlegmy, then a post-nasal drip, sore throat, and the rest of it. But not this time. Just a dry cough that comes and goes throughout the day. Every day. And every night. And the more I cough, the more I strain the muscles in my chest, so now I’m kind of sore, too.

Finding the Cause

I figured the ear ringing had to do with my new meds, although I couldn’t understand why the symptom didn’t show up for over a month after starting them. So I pulled out the little flyer that came from the pharmacy for each of them and scanned the side effects. As anyone who has ever watched a drug commercial on TV can tell you, all drugs have numerous side effects and these two were no different.

And guess what I found?

One of the side effects of Lisinopril is a dry cough. I did some more research on the Web and came up with a bunch of search results on “Lisinopril dry cough.” This page even explains why the cough occurs in some people. And that it sometimes takes a while for the side effect to appear.

Damn!

The good news is that the cough usually goes away when you stop taking Lisinopril. The bad news is that it might take months to stop.

Of course, no explanation for the ear ringing. At least not in the med pamphlets.

So today I’ll make an appointment with my doctor and see him about the meds and the ear ringing. Hopefully, we can get to the root of both problems and resolve them soon.

The Moral

There are two morals to this story:

  • When taking meds, it’s important to consider possible side effects when otherwise unexplained symptoms begin appearing.
  • If you stay in good health, you shouldn’t need meds or have to worry about side effects.

Lesson learned.

Getting Quality Health Care: Apparently Impossible

The state of health care in the United States: ineffective and humiliating.

For the past two years, I’ve had a digestive problem. The symptoms, which are intermittent and vary in intensity based primarily on what and how much I eat, include:

  • Acid reflux, sometimes to the point of burning in the back of my throat.
  • Heartburn, sometimes quite severe.
  • Pain, soreness to touch, and hardness in the area between my lower ribs and naval.
  • Pinching feeling in my muscles just beneath my lower ribs when I lift something even moderately heavy.
  • Vomiting, usually at least six hours after the meal I’ve eaten.
  • Feeling hungry and full at the same time.

I don’t have all symptoms every day, but I can usually count on at least one of them to make me feel less healthy than I should.

caduceusTwo years ago, I went to a gastroenterologist. She came into the examining room, spoke to me briefly about my symptoms, made a few notes on an electronic clipboard device, and told me to take Pepcid AC, the over-the-counter version of Famotidine. Then she listened to my heart and took my blood pressure because she “had to.” (Her words.) That first waste of my time cost me $128 and half a day of work.

When the symptoms didn’t go away, I went to a Wickenburg general practitioner who had been recommended to me, Dr. Diane Juilliard. When I described the heartburn symptom as a pain in my chest, she immediately hooked me up with a cardiologist who just happened to share office space with her one day a week. He put me through a battery of tests with the apparent goal of proving there was something wrong with my heart. Every time a test came back negative, I’d be told that it wasn’t conclusive and I’d be sent for another one. This went on for months, costing me thousands of dollars. After the final treadmill-jogging stress test, he was satisfied that there was nothing wrong with my heart.

While I’m very pleased to know that my heart is healthy, I wasn’t pleased to waste months of my time and thousands of dollars to obtain that information. Worse yet, when my husband paid his Cobra health insurance 5 days late and we were cut off, I could not get insurance because of my alleged “heart problem.” I was without health insurance for six very scary months. The only reason they let me back into Blue Cross Blue Shield is because I signed papers saying I wouldn’t put in a heart-related claim. (Why would I? There’s nothing wrong with my heart.)

I dumped Juilliard as a general practitioner when her office refused to give me the H1N1 vaccine last year, telling me over the phone that there was “a chance of severe neurological damage.” Yes, I’d managed to find a real MD who was a vaccine fear-mongerer. I suspect that she’s also a real supporter of the drug company salesmen, since she changed my two regular meds to new prescriptions for which no generics existed, pumping my prescription costs up from $15/month to $150/month.

I found a new general practitioner in Phoenix named Robert Rosenberg. He’s a little wacky — he has a weird sense of humor — but he knows his stuff. Unfortunately, I first got hooked up with him in the throes of my insurance problems, so I wasn’t able to attack the digestive problem immediately. We’re working on it now. To that end, he sent me to Dr. Stephen Winograd, who happens to have an office in the same building. Dr. Rosenberg suspected that I had a hiatal hernia and sent me to Dr. Winograd to get “scoped.”

I called Dr. Winograd’s office three weeks ago. The earliest appointment I could get was yesterday. I asked if I had to do anything special before the procedure. I was told that I wouldn’t be getting the procedure at my appointment. It was just a consultation.

Of course. The more visits, the more payments the doctor can collect.

The day before my appointment, the doctor’s office called and left a voicemail to confirm. The voicemail told me it was very important for me to call them back at a certain number and press #6. I didn’t see any reason to do that — after all, I had an appointment and hadn’t canceled it. They’d just confirmed it. Did I need to confirm it, too? I didn’t think so, so I didn’t call back.

I arrived promptly at 3:30 (as requested) for my 4:00 appointment. They took a photocopy of my insurance card and photo ID. They then gave me a stack of five forms to fill out. The first one asked for contact and insurance information — the same stuff they’d already gotten in their photocopy. The next three were for family medical history, personal medical history, and a summary of my symptoms. The last one was a form that said they could give my medical information to basically anyone who asked for it, as long as they seemed official enough. I was supposed to sign it but I didn’t.

I handed in the paperwork. No one checked it.

At 4:00, I was taken into an examining room where a nurse took my temperature, pulse, and blood pressure. I had to ask what my temperature and blood pressure were; she didn’t volunteer this information as she wrote them down. (I ask for this information because I like to collect data points taken by professionals. My temperature generally runs a bit lower than normal — usually around 97.8 — but I was 98.2 that day. Although I have a blood pressure cuff at home which I’ll occasionally use to check the effectiveness of my blood pressure meds, I think a nurse with an arm cuff and stethoscope is a much better way to get accurate data.)

The nurse consulted with the doctor and then came back and told me he was ready to see me. She escorted me across the hall into an office where a 50ish, overweight man sat in a chair behind a desk. He didn’t look like a doctor. He didn’t look healthy. He looked like someone who needs to get out in the sun once in a while, perhaps while trying to get some exercise.

He didn’t get up or offer a hand. I sat in one of the two chairs on the other side of his desk.

He glanced at some paperwork in front of him. I don’t know if it was the forms I’d filled out. If it was, he obviously didn’t read them. He asked me for my three worst symptoms. This annoyed me. I didn’t realize I was only allowed to have three symptoms. (Maybe I watch House too often.)

I chose vomiting (never fun), acid reflux, and the pain in my gut. He asked if I were taking any medication for the acid reflux. I told him that I didn’t think taking medication was a good idea until I knew what was causing the symptoms.

He said it was either medication or surgery. (Yes, he really did say surgery at that point.) He said most people chose medication. I told him that I didn’t see how surgery could be possible without a diagnosis.

That put him off a bit. Of course he had to come up with a diagnosis. But as far as he was concerned, he already had. It appeared on my paperwork later: GERD.

I told him that Dr. Rosenberg thought I had a hiatal hernia and had sent me to be scoped. He asked me if I wanted to be scoped. I told him that’s what I’d come for. He asked me if I’d ever been scoped. I told him I hadn’t.

I told him about the pinching pain. He said that didn’t sound like it had anything to do with my digestive system. I pointed out that it started the same time as my other symptoms and had been going on for two years. He insisted it had nothing to do with anything he could help me with. He suggested that I Google it as a symptom and see that it had nothing to do with GERD. (Yes, he really suggested, during a “consultation,” that I get medical information via Google.) Then he took a step back and said that anything was possible.

I asked him how I could be vomiting food I’d eaten at least 6 hours before. Didn’t it all get through the stomach in that time? He told me I was probably not vomiting food. He said it was probably just the acid. I assured him it was food. Lots of it. Like a whole meal. With bits and pieces I could taste again on the way out. He didn’t seem to believe me.

He did not offer any explanation of what could be causing my problems. He did not use any visuals — diagrams, charts, drug company pamphlets — to show me how it all worked. Instead, he made a big show of agreeing to send me for a upper gastrointestinal endoscopy and a upper gastrointestinal series. He then made a big show of rising from his chair to “escort” me back to the examining room. There were no goodbyes. I’d obviously rocked his little world.

Back in the examining room, the nurse came back in with a much photocopied pamphlet with information about the endoscopy. She then escorted me into another office where two women sat at computers facing a wall. Behind them, on the opposite wall, were three chairs. I sat in one of these chairs while one of them women, her back to me most of the time, scheduled the test for me three weeks in the future. She handed me more paper and told me to “check out.” Like at a supermarket.

I found the front desk and handed over the paper. They took my $50 co-pay — I’m sure I’ll see a bill later, considering my deductible is $10,000/year — and handed me a sheet of paper with information about calling to schedule the other test. Evidently, it wasn’t possible for them to do it for me.

I left feeling angry and stupid.

This morning, I woke wondering whether I should go ahead with the tests. Dr. Winograd had already made his decision on what was wrong with me based on looking at me across his desk and hearing a few choice symptoms. Would he even look at the test results? Was I just going through the motions, throwing more money at an annoying health problem that no one seemed to think was serious to warrant real attention?

Was I wasting my time? Should I ignore the symptoms and simply mask them with drugs?

I recall the surgery I had back in 2006 when a lump in my abdomen had grown to the size of a 6-month fetus. I’d had the lump for years and had asked various doctors about it. They didn’t seem concerned. It was only when a routine visit to a gynecologist got another doctor’s attention. Visiting a gynecologic oncologist, seeing all the cancer patients in his waiting room visit after visit, wondering if you’ll soon be as bald and near death as they are, is a truly terrifying experience. The surgery and what came afterward wasn’t fun either. Thankfully, no cancer, but I have a scar big enough to be the mother of caesarian-born twins.

An experience like that sticks with you forever. In the back of my mind is this nagging thought: what if this is something serious? How bad does it have to get before I get proper medical attention?

Or is it “just GERD” that I can “cure” with Pepcid AC and a switch to decaf?