I stared at the grey hairs sprouting out of the right ear of my aging optometrist as he peered into my left eye with his ophthalmoscope. I could feel my heartbeat speed up a little; my annual eye exam always makes me nervous. Moments before I had joked with the doctor that it was the one exam I couldn’t study for and always managed to fail.
He chuckled, but only politely, like my joke wasn’t as funny as I thought it was, or like he hears it daily. He probably does.
After a minute or two of awkward silence in the darkened room, he asked me, “How’s your cholesterol?” I startled because that’s not a question you expect to hear from an eye doctor and my brain couldn’t make a connection between my eyes and my heart health.
He explained, “You have what’s called arcus juvenilis, a small white crescent around the cornea of each eye. At your age, it’s often associated with a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol levels.” This was news to me. I haven’t thought about my cholesterol levels in, well, ever. I’m under 40, exercise daily, and eat a diet that’s usually pretty low in red meats and saturated fats.
Of course, my optometrist’s comments had me second-guessing myself. Is my diet decent? Am I pushing my body enough when I get my miles in? Why did I eat two slices of cheese pizza last night and then top it off with a bowl of ice cream?!
By the time I left the exam room, I was pretty shaken up. I may not be 40 yet, but I’m getting pretty darn close. It dawned on me that I haven’t been paying much attention to my overall health these past few years–not since I was postpartum with my youngest daughter, and she’s now five! I had been telling myself that I didn’t have time for healthcare visits because I had two young kids and had recently made a move across the country (three years ago!). I was just too busy to get an annual physical or blood panel and, really, I felt fine.
As I headed home, my mind started to wander. My biological mother and I don’t have a relationship, but I do know that she was in the hospital twice for heart-related problems before she hit the age of 60. One of those hospitalizations was because she had a mini heart attack. How had I never considered this, or realized that maybe high cholesterol was a genetic trait that had been passed on to me, and that I, in turn, could pass on to my daughters?
The next day, I called up my primary clinic and made an appointment for a physical. They couldn’t get me in for a few weeks so while I waited, I made a few small changes to my diet, cutting out dairy and most processed foods. (In hindsight, I don’t know if this was totally necessary, but it did help me feel a little more in control as I faced some uncertainty in an already uncertain time.)
By the time my appointment rolled around, I had done a deep dive into researching Familial Hypercholesterolemia and was ready with my questions–ready to make a long-term action plan. Turns out, I didn’t need to. My primary doctor told me that my blood work had come back perfectly fine. I did not have any elevated levels, my blood pressure was good, and I was in great all-round health.
At first I felt embarrassed and I chided myself for making a big deal out of nothing, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had done the right thing by taking my health seriously. I don’t know about you, but becoming a mom has completely changed the amount of time and attention I gave myself–my physical and mental self started to take a backseat to the demands of a job and a family.
Moms grow into a sort of constant state of flexibility; when the schedule needs to change or plans need to get rearranged, mom puts herself last.
I’d never dream of canceling a physical or dental appointment without rescheduling it for one of my girls, but I’d done just that for myself numerous times–calling and canceling an appointment with the intention to call back when I had a free moment or found the time. But I rarely did.
When my optometrist asked me about my cholesterol, it jolted me out of my complacency. I had been neglecting to keep tabs on my body and how well it was working. I feel a little shame in it because my family is privileged to have access to private health insurance and a thorough healthcare network. Putting off my routine appointments was helping no one.
While COVID-19 restrictions are eased for the time being, I am jumping on the opportunity to make more appointments; an annual physical was just the start. Next up? The gynecologist. I can’t say I’m looking forward to it, but I can say that it’s important and necessary. (I just hope I remember this when my feet are in those stirrups!)