After 29 years, maybe it's time for a physical exam

October 30, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The doctor, Daniel G. Sapir, a man of wisdom and good cheer, asked the question as though he had posed it a million times before, which perhaps he had.

"Your last physical was when?"

"January," I declared forthrightly.

"January?"

"Of," I may have muttered somewhat incoherently into my sleeve, "1968."

"Pardon?"

"Fort Holabird," I explained. "The, um, Army physical. And they said I was in pretty good shape, so I just assumed it still held."

Apparently, nearly 30 years having passed since then, and my age now having turned to 52 despite my explicit intentions to remain 23, there may have occurred one or two minor and scarcely noticeable changes in my body, as well.

This message was drummed home a few weeks ago when a friend, the TV newsman Richard Sher, went for a routine physical exam. For him, physicals really are routine: He gets physicals the way the rest of us get soup. He sees various doctors every five minutes, like a hobby. Others are heading to lunch, and he'll say, "I think I'll go get a sonogram."

He eats like a monk, and works out like a marathoner, and hasn't an ounce of fat on his entire skinny body, for which he is naturally hated by many. And, anyway, he winds up in an operating room at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

A routine stress test, it started out. And the doctor, Nicholas Fortuin, notices something and tells him he wants to give a thallium test, in which photographs of the heart are taken. He says there may be some vessel blockage. A few days later, this leads to catheterization, the shooting of dye into these vessels, where the doctors find one of Sher's arteries with 90 percent blockage and another with 70 percent blockage.

Three weeks ago at Hopkins Hospital, two angioplasties are performed. This is the insertion of balloons into these vessels, inflating them, and pushing out the offending blockages of plaque or calcium. Sher emerges the next day, feeling fine.

"I've always been sort of a kvetch," he admits yesterday, "and people know this, and so it's like a medical talk show around my desk. But I have the best doctors in town. And now I'm playing tennis better than I did."

Also, he sent a bulletin to everyone of a certain age who gives even random thought to personal mortality: Maybe things have changed since we were 23, and maybe the body shouldn't be taken for granted.

Which was why, two days ago, I found myself with Dr. Daniel Sapir, and mentioned the business about Fort Holabird and my last physical.

"Ah," he nodded slowly. "An ostrich."

Of course. Put your head in the sand, and maybe the world will go away. My assumption is: If they can't examine me, then they can't find anything, and therefore I can't have whatever it is that they might have found if I had let them look in the first place.

No news is good news and, to quote a friend of mine, who happens to work with doctors and thus doesn't want his name in the newspaper, "Everybody I know that goes in, by the time they get out, they're dead. So you never want to go to doctors."

Doctors are the potential bearers of bad news. The accent is on "potential." Maybe the news will be good, but we suspect not. A woman I know, who is a clinical social worker and thus a student of the human psyche but does not wish her name in the newspaper because she is married to me, asks if the word "wimp" comes to mind. She says all of this has something to do with men wearing a mask of machismo while women are infinitely braver while not particularly bothering to make a big deal out of it.

Of this, I have no doubt. Consider the childbirth thing alone.

But there is more involved here than bravery. Men don't like to feel a loss of control, which is one reason we never like to ask for directions, even if we're lost. It implies we've lost control of our entire lives. If we admit even slight loss of control, we're vulnerable. If we're vulnerable, someone might hurt us. It's a complete reversion to the playground mentality of our youth, when we learned to protect ourselves from guys named Moose.

Women don't see this as a control issue. They didn't have anybody named Moose on their side of the playground. As they go through their lives, they think: Here's the problem, let me deal with it.

Men don't want to deal with things. To us, the most frightening words in the language are: "We need to talk." Why? Why do we need to talk? Why can't we just drift along, and pretend things are swell, and count on nothing ever going wrong if we just leave it alone?

And then came the Richard Sher angioplasties.

So I went to the doctor last week, and what do you know? It turns out, I'm in good shape. I'm still going in for a stress test. And he wants me to come back for checkups more than once every 29 years. But he said my basics look good.

I feel so relieved, I'm thinking of going down to Fort Holabird and letting them know, their analysis held up.

Pub Date: 10/30/97

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