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.


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.


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.


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.


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?

Jack the Dog

The best dog.

Our first exposure to Jack was in mid 2001. The year before, we’d put our 14-year-old Dalmation to rest after a life of controllable health problems became uncontrollable with age. He was my third dog — my family always had dogs — and my husband’s first. His loss was shattering and we took some time off to see if we could live without a dog in our lives.

Nine months later, we were thinking of trying again. We’d decided that we wanted a smart dog. While Spot had been smart enough to fetch the newspaper from the curb, fetch my slippers, and distinguish one toy from another by name, he wasn’t quite smart enough to stay out of the Arizona sun or avoid the back end of a protective mare when a newborn filly was in the area. I didn’t think Dalmatians could fly, but ours did. He was never quite the same after that, either.

Jack in the PaperWe’d been talking to people about dogs and learning about different breeds well-suited for ranches. I’d decided that something like a border collie or Australian shepherd would be a good breed. So when the newspaper mentioned a border collie/Australian shepherd mix up for adoption, we decided to take a look.

Understand that Wickenburg is a small town and nothing much happens. In order to fill the pages of the local weekly rag they call a newspaper, they’d often show photos of pets up for adoption. (I don’t know if they still do this. We stopped reading the crap they printed when they became the propaganda arm for a corrupt mayor and Chamber of Commerce.) The town didn’t have a Humane Society back then, so all unwanted pets were brought to Bar S Animal Clinic, which happened to be the vet we used for Spot and our horses.

The story we got about the dog — who was already named Jack — was that he’d been owned by a family that neglected him. He was frequently out loose and had been picked up by the local dog catcher at least three times. The first few times, the family paid the fee and picked him up. But the last time, they’d decided not to. He was up for grabs. They figured he was 9 to 12 months old.

The newspaper clipping completely understated his personality. When they brought him out to the waiting area at Bar S for us to meet him, they practically had to drag him out on a leash. He was terrified. He didn’t want to come to either one of us.

Although he looked like a nice enough dog, I had doubts. I didn’t want a dog that was afraid of his own shadow. Mike and I talked it over and then talked to the folks at Bar S. I distinctly remember asking if we could bring him back if it didn’t work out. They told us we could, so we coaxed him outside to the car.

That’s when we noticed Jack was really different. He wouldn’t get in the car — it was like he didn’t know how. Finally, I sat in the front seat and Mike put him on my lap. He closed the door and we headed back to the office in town.

In those days, I owned a condo in downtown Wickenburg. After dealing with the last set of abusive and destructive tenants, I’d decided to turn the place into an office for us. I had the living room, Mike had the master bedroom. Our home was across town, about 5 miles away by car.

The condo was on the second floor. That’s when we discovered that Jack didn’t know how to climb steps.

His first gift to us was a big poop on the living room carpet.

He started coming around to us very quickly and that scaredy-dog personality faded away. He listened, came when we called him, and didn’t need to be on a leash around the yard. He also seemed to get along fine with the horses. And he understood what shade was.

Jack and MikeHe bonded to me — probably because he’d been sitting on my lap on that car ride. This was not ideal. I’d planned to get a parrot in a month or so and Jack was supposed to be mostly my husband’s dog. So for the first few days, I began ignoring him and Mike started lavishing him with attention. After a few days of that, he was Mike’s dog, although he responded to me equally well. But when we were together, it was always Mike that he went to first. That was fine with me.

We’d had him about a month when he fell out of the back of Mike’s pickup on the way to the office. It wasn’t light yet — Mike was telecommuting for a job on the east coast back then and would routinely get to the office around 6 AM local time. He wasn’t sure where Jack had fallen out, but he was able to narrow it down to a 1/2 mile stretch of road about a mile from our house.

We spent the entire day looking for him, calling the dog catcher, Bar S, and any other group that might know something about a found dog. I used my Jeep to drive up and down all the sandy washes in the area, calling him by name. We were convinced that he’d been injured and was hiding in the bushes somewhere, possibly dying.

When night fell, we knew the coyotes would get him. We were shattered. In just a month, we’d grown to love him.

At 3 AM, Mike climbed out of bed, unable to sleep. He came downstairs to get a glass of water. And who was at the back door, waiting to be let in? Jack. I don’t know how he spent his day, but he found his way home, safe and sound.

The next nine and a half years left indelible memories on my mind:

  • Jack and Mike at ParkerJack sitting on the edge of the back patio, watching the road that leads down to our house, racing around to the front when Mike’s car or truck rolled down.
  • Jack barking at the UPS truck or FedEx truck before it even came into sight, climbing into the open UPS truck door as I chatted with the driver and he fetched my package, accepting cookies from our mail carrier.
  • Jack at Howard MesaJack running around on our 40 acres in northern Arizona, chasing rabbits, crawling under the shed, looking for mice and rats.
  • Jack barking at the sound of coyotes, close or far, sometimes in the middle of the night.
  • Jack chasing lizards in the backyard and, more than once, catching them.
  • Jack riding in the back of my Jeep as we explored the old forest roads just south of the Grand Canyon or out in the desert along Constellation Road or up in the Bradshaw Mountains.
  • Jack “herding” the horses up the driveway at the end of the day, dodging Jake’s hoofs as he tried to kick him.
  • Jack in the ForestJack hiking with us up Vulture Peak, through the Hassayampa River bed, at Granite Mountain, inside Red Mountain, at the Grand Canyon, in the forest at Mount Humphreys, in countless other places.
  • Jack in the back of my helicopter, looking out the window as we flew over town.
  • Jack on the trail in the desert as we followed on horseback, watching him take off with high pitched yipping sounds as he closed in on a jackrabbit or cottontail.
  • Jack with Lee and Sharon PearsonJack riding in the back of the pickup, his head out in the slipstream as we drove around town. (He only fell out of the pickup that one time, although he did fall out of my Jeep twice.)
  • Jack playing with my neighbor’s dogs, who used to come visit for cookies and attention.
  • Jack racing around the side of the house when he knew we’d be coming out the front, looking at us with the “Can I please come?” face and racing to the truck when we said yes.
  • Jack whining when we prepared to leave and told him he’d have to stay in. It’s that whine that Alex the Bird picked up and mimics to this day.
  • Jack meeting us at the door as if he hadn’t seen us for years when we came home from a day out.
  • Jack ignoring Alex the Bird when he whistled Mike’s whistle or issued commands: “Hey, Jack!” “Go lie down!” “Go outside!”
  • Jack on his dog bed at the foot of the bed, or by the open french doors in our bedroom, or on a rug on the floor of our cabin or RV while we slept.
  • Jack trotting along ahead of us, on his extension leash, as we walked the few blocks from our Phoenix condo to Wildflower Bakery for morning coffee and breakfast croissant.

I could go on all day, listing the snapshots in my mind. Jack didn’t have a mean bone in his body. Everyone loved him.

He never seemed to slow down — until recently. In the 20-20 vision of hindsight, I should have realized there was a problem. I noticed about a month ago that he seemed to be breathing heavily, even at rest, once in a while. I mentioned it to Mike, but he didn’t notice.

Last weekend, he seemed a bit under the weather, spending more than the usual amount of time just lying around. We thought it had something to do with his food; Mike had bought something new. Jack had a sensitive digestive system and could only eat dog food. (People food literally made him sick — even good stuff like steak!) But by Sunday, he was back to his old self.

On Monday morning, Mike went on a business trip to Georgia.

Jack stopped eating on Tuesday. I took him to the local vet on Wednesday and Thursday mornings. He had blood work. He spent Thursday at the vet. His labored breathing prompted the vet to take an X-ray. That’s when he saw the fluid around his lungs.

I took him to another vet in Peoria for an ultrasound on Friday morning. By that time, he had to be carried everywhere. He was alert but weak, struggling to breathe.

The ultrasound picture made the problem obvious. The doctor was able to diagnose in less than a minute. Jack had a large tumor on his heart. It looked to be about 1/5 the size of his heart, so it had obviously been growing there for a while. The tumor was causing fluid to leak into the sac around his heart. That fluid was crowding out his lungs, making it difficult to breathe.

The tumor, because of its placement, was inoperable. Chemotherapy was not usually effective — although I admit that I don’t think we would have gone that route. Draining the fluid could buy him a few hours or days, but his condition would come right back to the way it was. There was even a chance that the fluid could fill as quickly as it was drained.

In other words, Jack was terminally ill and likely had a very short time to live.

Jack the Desert DogThe decision wasn’t hard. The worst thing you can do for an animal is try to keep it alive when it’s suffering. Jack, although maybe not in pain (yet), was laboring to breathe. It was taking everything he had. He couldn’t even walk anymore. He hadn’t eaten in more than three days. His condition was deteriorating quickly. I wasn’t even sure if he’d be alive when my husband came home that night.

After breaking the news to my husband, I did what I needed to do. The folks at Bar S Animal Clinic were unbelievably kind to both Jack and me. I cannot thank them enough.

Jack’s gone now and we’ll miss him. He was the best dog ever.

Note: I’ve closed the comments on this post in an effort to head off condolences, etc. While I appreciate any kind thoughts you might have in this difficult time, I believe that reading them will only prolong my grief. If you want to leave a comment, instead consider a small donation to your local Humane Society. And the next time you want to add a pet to your life, visit the local pound or Humane Society first. If you’re as lucky as we were, you’ll get to take home a pet as wonderful as Jack was.

Moving Day…and the Day After

Or how I lost a day of my life.

On Friday, I moved my helicopter and RV from Quincy, WA to Wenatchee Heights, where I’ll be based for the next three weeks.

Step 1: Move the Helicopter

The move started early. I drove over to the ag strip where my helicopter was parked at 7 AM. I untied the blades, did my preflight, and cleaned the windows, which were coated with dust. By 7:20 AM, the engine was running and the blades were spinning. On my GPS, I dialed in the waypoint for the previous year’s landing zone (LZ). The goal was to take the shortest route to the LZ. Not only was I trying to save money — every minute in flight literally costs me a few dollars — but I was supposed to meet my client at 8 AM and I didn’t want to be late.

I launched by 7:25 and headed out. The guys at the ag strip were flying and I had to assume that their competition on the other side of town were also flying. So I climbed to about 600 feet AGL, hoping to stay out of their way. I adjusted my course to head directly to my old LZ. The GPS told me it would take 18 minutes.

I overflew the Columbia River south of where route 28 winds down from the Quincy Basin toward Crescent Bar. The river, more than 1200 feet below me, looked inviting — I love to fly low-level over its surface. But I could clearly see the action of the wind on the water. It would be a bumpy ride. And it would definitely not be the quickest, most direct route. So I ignored it and continued along my route.

My RouteIt was the first time I’d flown over some of that terrain, but it wasn’t very interesting. I did notice some abandoned wheat fields in an unlikely place. And I got a great view down to Wenatchee when I crossed the ridge separating Malaga from the hills to the south. My LZ was on the side of a hill just beyond the next ridge, so I approached from the east and turned west after I’d crossed the ridge and had it in view.

Helicopter ParkingI wasn’t planning on landing in last year’s LZ, though. I was going to land on a construction site where I planned to park my RV. I came in for my approach and zeroed in on the patch of dirt I thought was level. A huge cloud of dust erupted and, for a moment, I thought I’d have white-out conditions. But the cloud drifted away as I touched down. Unfortunately, the LZ wasn’t as level as I thought and I just didn’t like it. So I lifted up, sending even more dust into the air, and flew to a known level spot close to last year’s LZ. I set down in the grass among weeds and flowers right beside a pond ringed with cattails and only a few yards from some of the cherry trees I was hired to protect. As I cooled the engine, I watched the dust cloud I’d created moments before drift off to the southwest.

Zimmerman PondI locked up and made a short hike through the orchard, up to the packing shed where I’d be meeting my client. It was a pleasant morning with clear blue skies and not the least indication of rain anytime in the near future. At the top of the hill, I looked back down at the pond and the mountains beyond it. My helicopter looked like a red speck on the grass. The cherry trees seemed to embrace it while rocky hillsides studded with other orchards looked on.

Step 2: Get Back to Quincy

I met my client near his packing shed after taking another quick look at my planned RV parking spot. It was 8:10 AM when we headed back to Quincy.

My client and I had a nice chat along the 40-mile drive to Quincy. I learned a lot about the cherry business — there’s so much to it! I gave him a copy of my Cherries: from Tree to Truck DVD; I hope he gets a chance to see it.

He dropped me off at my truck at the ag strip. Before I left him, we talked about the other helicopter parked there. The pilot, who was on cherry contracts just like I was, had parked it there two weeks ago, before heading back to Seattle. Although he was on call, he didn’t take his status as seriously as I did. If it rained, I doubted that he’d make it back in time to fly. But since rain didn’t seem like a possibility, no one would know. It irked me and shocked my client.

Step 3: Move the RV

The RV was mostly packed up and ready to go. But since I didn’t think I was going to have water where I was going, I spent a little extra time and washed out Alex the Bird’s cage. It was hot, sweaty work and I did it in gym shorts and a tank top, not really caring who saw me. I let it dry in the sun while I vacuumed the trailer one more time. Then I dumped the tanks and put away the power cord and hoses, wiping mud off the cord and water hose before neatly coiling them up and putting them away. It was important to keep everything neat and clean.

Inside the RV, I strapped down the movables — my La-Z-Boy chair, Alex’s cage, and the big television on its swing arm. Alex was already in his travel box, waiting on the grass in the shade of my neighbor’s RV. Then I pushed the button that brought in the slides, the button that brought up the stablizer legs, and the button that sent down the landing gear to raise the front end. All of these buttons are in a remote control, so I could walk around the RV while I did all this, doing the work of two people.

I dropped the truck tailgate and backed it up to the RV’s gooseneck hitch. Even though it’s a fifth wheel trailer, we put a conversion kit on it so it would mate with our existing gooseneck ball. It took me about six tries to get the hitch centered over the ball. Then another button push brought the hitch down onto the ball. The landing gear rose as the truck’s back end descended with the weight of the trailer. Soon, the feet were off the ground and the legs were fully retracted. I lifted them the final 10 inches and used the pins to hold them in place. I connected the chains, the pin, the brake cable, and the power cable. I brought up the tailgate. I was almost done.

On the Road AgainI had to drive forward about four inches to free one of the wheel chocks. I collected them and put them away, then locked up all the hatches and did a final walk-around. I was ready to go.

The drive to Wenatchee Heights was uneventful. I drove slowly; there was no reason to rush. The last few miles were the toughest — a winding rode that climbed the hillside to the orchard. When the pavement turned to gravel, I pushed the 4WD button to give me extra traction. I finally reached the driveway for the building site where I’d be parking and stopped the truck.

I use small construction style cones to help me back up. I place them on the boundaries of where I want to park. I can easily see them and refer to them in the rearview mirrors. I fetched them from one of the RV’s storage cabinets and put them out. Then I started backing down the gravel drive. The first time I touched the brakes, the whole rig slid 6 to 12 inches before coming to a stop. Clearly, this would be tricky. I repeated the backup, stop, backup, stop process, inching down the hill. Finally, my truck’s wheels left the gravel and hit the dirt of the construction site. Suddenly, I had traction.

Back Window ViewI got out to reposition the cones and continued the process. Eventually, I had the RV positioned just about where I wanted it, with its big back window facing out over the valley (see cell phone photo for view) only a few feet from the edge of a cliff.

One more thing: leveling. I checked the level just inside the RV’s door. I’d need to raise the driver’s side. I pulled out the Lego-like leveling blocks and stacked them 3 high in a stair-step configuration. I backed up another 12 inches, feeling the RV rise onto the blocks. I stopped and got out to take a look. I was very surprised to find both left side wheels centered perfect atop their blocks.

Parking SpotFrom that point, setting up was a matter of disconnecting the truck and pushing a bunch of buttons on the remote control. Within 20 minutes, the RV was fully set up, with Alex back in his cage.

It was about noon.

Where I Went Wrong: Lunch

I decided to reward myself with lunch out. All day long, I’d been craving fried chicken but for some reason, I decided to visit the Thai restaurant I’d been to on previous summers. They made a good Pad Thai and a great black rice pudding. I figured I’d eat half the Pad Thai and bring the rest home. I’d also hit the supermarket to pick up a few things.

For some reason, the TV in the Thai place was tuned into the Discovery Channel, which was playing a show about army ants. Those are the ants that can swarm and kill people. No people were killed during my meal, but various poultry and large insects were. Not having my iPad along, I had nothing else to look at. Whether that was a contributing factor to the next 36 hours is unknown.

I put aside half the Pad Thai and ordered the black rice pudding. I was about halfway finished with it when I began feeling unusually stuffed. Unusual because I know I can eat a lot more food than I had. I put the pudding aside, too, and got boxes for both of them. They were too tasty to leave behind.

I went to Safeway and did some food shopping — mostly salad stuff. I felt bloated the whole time.

I drove the 8 miles back up to my campsite and put away the groceries. I still felt stuffed.

I talked to my husband, Mike. I mentioned how stuffed I felt. I was spending a lot of time in my comfy chair, mostly because I felt kind of sick.

By 5:30, I had my Sea Bands on. They’re elasticized bracelets that fight nausea and they usually work pretty well for me.

By 6 PM, I was vomiting. I hate to vomit. I can’t understand how people can be bulimic; vomiting is the most disgusting thing a person can do.

As you might expect, I felt a lot better when I was done. That’s the thing I hate most about vomiting. No matter how much I hate doing it, I know I’ll feel much better when I’m done.

After rinsing my mouth out with water and using damp washcloth on my face, I settled back into my comfy chair to read.

Must have been something I ate, I said to myself. Better not eat those leftovers.

The Misery Continues

I went to bed around 9 PM after watching some TV. Even though I was off the grid, the TV in the bedroom is DC and the antenna was able to get a very good picture on 6 channels. I watched something called MI-5 on PBS. I liked it.

I fell asleep around 10. By 11:30, I was awake again, feeling sick. Soon I was hugging the toilet again.

I didn’t think it was possible to vomit something I’d eaten nearly 12 hours before, but apparently it was.

I slept like crap.

The Day I Lost

When I woke up, it was fully light out — sometime after 6 AM, I think. I ached all over — every single muscle in my body. It took me 30 minutes to summon the strength to get out of bed. I went to the bathroom, did my business, and went right back to bed for another 30 minutes.

Alex, still covered, started to make noises. I dragged myself out of bed again to uncover him. Then I sat down on the sofa near his cage for another 20 minutes. I thought about coffee, which I’d have to perk or drip; without electricity, my coffee maker was useless. So was the microwave. At least Alex’s breakfast was ready — I’d made him scrambled eggs for the next few days before leaving Quincy. I cut some up for him and put them in his dish. Then, since my stomach was still feeling iffy, I decided to brew some Hopi tea instead of coffee.

I downed two ibuprofen to deaden the pain in my muscles. It worked.

I spent the entire morning dozing fitfully in my comfy chair, eventually drinking the entire 18-ounce cup of tea.

I had a problem. The temperature was expected to reach the high 90s that day and get even hotter the next two days. The trailer, parked in the sun, would likely get at least 10°F hotter. I had a 2000-watt Honda generator in one of the RV’s cabinets. I wasn’t sure whether it would run the air conditioning. But one thing I was sure of: there was no way I would be able to lift it out of the cabinet by myself. I was just too weak.

There was a possible solution, though. I was on a construction site for a vacation home. Construction had ceased, but not before electricity had been run to the site. The day before, I’d had enough foresight to see if the power was turned on — I’d plugged in a portable fan and it had run. What I needed to do before I could think further about the generator was to contact the property owner and see if he’d let me tap into his power supply. (He already knew I was parking there.)

That meant doing the following:

  1. Taking a shower. I needed one. I stunk.
  2. Dressing. For obvious reasons.
  3. Walking to the site next to mine, a distance of about 1/4 mile round trip, to talk to the guy next door, who was working on his home’s construction.
  4. Getting the name and phone number of the owner of my site.
  5. Calling the owner of my site and getting his permission.
  6. Running one or more power cords the 100+ feet from the power box to my RV’s power port.
  7. Seeing if the air conditioner would run on a 110v connection over 14 gauge wire.

It took me nearly two hours to do all this. I lucked out at every step of the way. My neighbor was still there, he had the phone number, the owner answered the phone, the owner said yes, I only needed one power cord to cover the distance, the air conditioning worked.

Exhausted, I went inside and settled back into my comfy chair. I dozed on and off for a few hours. Then I stretched out on the sofa and dozed on and off for another few hours. Then I moved into the bedroom and stretched out on the bed where I dozed on and off for another few hours.

Somewhere in there, I made myself some cereal with bananas and ate it. I wasn’t hungry, but I felt empty and I didn’t think that was a good thing.

I also spoke to my husband and a fellow cherry drying friend. My friend, in fact, offered to help with the generator if I needed to. It would mean a 3-hour round-trip drive for him. I’m glad he didn’t have to do it.

Alex was very well-behaved. I think he sensed that I was sick.

At 7 PM, I forced myself to stay awake. I was worried that I’d sleep fitfully throughout the night if I slept too much during the day. That’s about when the headache started. I took three Extra Strength Tylenol and tried to read.

I had three crackers with cashew butter on them for dinner.

At 9 PM, I was back in bed. I tried to watch TV, but the picture kept digitizing, which was weird. (Could the A/C connection screw up the RV’s circuitry enough to mess up a TV reception?) I was asleep before 10 PM.

I’m Back

Despite going to bed with a splitting headache, I slept like a log. I woke up feeling 95% myself. What a difference a day makes!

My ViewAlthough I pushed myself a bit too hard with a short hike in the orchard this morning — and was rewarded with a period of lightheadedness — I was able to do things today. I shot some photos around the orchard. I set up the BBQ grill and the outdoor mat. I took out my folding chair and set it up facing my wonderful view (see cell phone photo). I had a real breakfast (cereal with yogurt and banana) and real lunch (grilled chicken satay). I put a bunch of photos online and I wrote two blog posts. I even caught up on my Twitter and email accounts and moderated blog comments.

Yesterday was a lost day. I’m glad it’s the first one in a long time.