He just won't see a doctor? It's a guy thing

A heart attack changed attitude of Lutherville man

Health & Fitness

November 16, 2003|By Mary Beth Regan | Mary Beth Regan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Dave Gensler is a typical guy, but he knows that typical-guy behavior can be a killer.

Three years ago, the youthful 44-year-old suffered a heart attack. Fortunately, his heart was not extensively damaged. But his doctors warned that next time he might not be so lucky.

Today, Gensler is dedicated to good health. He eats fresh foods, exercises regularly and checks his vital signs weekly. He just ran a 6.8-mile leg of the Baltimore Marathon in a relay with friends from the Johns Hopkins Heart Health center.

But Gensler is in the minority among adult men. Doctors, researchers and sociologists have long known that men aren't as diligent as women when it comes to their health. According to government studies, twice as many men as women don't have a regular physician. Of those who haven't visited a doctor in five years, 70 percent are men. And even when men do have health issues, one in four say they'll wait as long as possible to seek treatment.

"Even top athletes will wait until they are on their last leg to ask for help," says John Bielawski, regional director of Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center in Baltimore.

The reason for this behavior is complex, says Will Courtenay, editor of the International Journal of Men's Health and faculty member at Harvard Medical School. Studies show that boys and men are much less knowledgeable about health issues. In addition, they are socialized to withstand pain and play down complaints about illness and injury.

From the time they are young, says Megan Smith, manager of outreach programs for the Men's Health Network, a Washington advocacy group, men "are taught to handle pain and ignore their body alarms. ... But sometimes they wait until something is too broken to fix."

To make matters worse, studies also show that physicians spend less time with men and impart less information. A 1997 study, for example, found that 86 percent of physicians provided instructions to women about performing breast exams, but only 29 percent of physicians imparted similar information about self-exams for testicular cancer.

Such social conditioning has devastating results. Men in America are dying, on average, six years earlier than women. They have higher death rates for every one of the top 10 leading killers, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Doctors, researchers and activists say the nation needs a double-barreled strategy to reverse this troubling trend. Men need better information about health care, but they also must take more responsibility for their bodies.

The Men's Health Network is pushing for an Office of Men's Health similar to the Office of Women's Health, established in 1991, to fight illnesses such as breast cancer. But caring for men's bodies is up to men themselves.

Doctors say it's not uncommon for wives to nudge and nag their husbands to get proper medical care. But "nagging doesn't help," Courtenay says. "What men need is good information with low pressure."

Or, guys could listen to Dave Gensler. "I tell my friends, you take better care of your car and your house than you do of your body," he says. "Get your priorities straight."

Gensler, who collects antique motorcycles, says he lived a '60s lifestyle in his youth. But in recent decades, he cleaned up his act, putting on a few pounds but staying active.

He worked 10 hours a day in his family's business, Venture Vending, among other things collecting money from machines including music boxes and high-tech games. During stops at local bars, he'd nibble on french fries and sample an occasional crab cake. At night, he'd drive home to Lutherville past the Maryland Athletic Club, in Timonium, promising himself that he'd start exercising soon.

Then in July 2000, he got the scare of his life. He and long-time partner Carleen Beadenkopf were in Ohio for the American Motorcycle Association's Vintage Bike Days. He was loading bikes into his truck when he felt hot, sweaty and sick.

"The whole world got fuzzy," he says. He suffered what doctors call a painless heart attack, because it didn't arrive with typical chest pains.

Doctors in Ohio immediately administered drugs to ease the blockage. Then, he was transferred to another hospital for cardiac catheterization, a procedure that uses a catheter and balloon to open blocked arteries. A stent was placed in his artery to keep it open.

Three days later, he was sent home with a stern warning. He remembers the doctor's words: "Son, you're approaching halftime and you're blowing the game. If you want to see the finish, you need to change your strategy."

Gensler now takes his health seriously. He joined the Maryland Athletic Club and Hopkins Heart Health, where he works out five days a week. He changed his diet. He gets enough sleep, tries not to stress over work. He is thankful for supportive family members and friends, who understand his need to put health first. And he tries to get other guys to understand that doing the minimum may not be enough.

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