What You Don't Know Could Hurt You
By Dr. Chuck Crinnian, MD
Back in the “glory days” of aviation, the professional airline pilot had a mandatory retirement age of 60. Many died before age 65. Why? Deferred maintenance and regular inspections of their own physiologic systems. If a pilot had a disqualifying medical condition, they were out of a job and worse, not in the air. This mindset resulted in the usual S.O.P of just going to the every 6 month 1st class medical “screening exam”. But that exam is very basic. It does not get detailed enough into accepted health screenings we now know are necessary. Typically, the retired airline pilot had his first heart attack or major life modifying health event just after age 60. In retrospect, this could have been prevented just by following health screening guidelines. But due to fear of losing ones medical, that screen was deferred indefinitely. “I don't want to find anything to screw up my medical” was the typical mantra of pilots of yesteryear.
I now have to admit that I had this same mindset. Flying is too important in my life to jeopardize it by finding some medical issue. It won't happen to me! This might come as a surprise from a physician, but we are guilty of this mindset as well. However, my “day job” is in a large hospital and I see a variety of patients. It used to be that all those sick people were really older that me. But not anymore. I have seen folks in their 40s and 50s at the “pearly gates” with prostate cancer, colon cancer, breast cancer, and heart disease. They checked into the hospital, but they didn't leave through the front door.
I caught a case of “Medical Student Disease”. That is where a young doctor begins to experience the symptoms of many of the patients they see. This really was a wake up call-I should do what I teach. The FAA now has developed a very good system of special issuance medical certificates that allows many pilots with health problems to qualify for a medical. Don't wait for a health event to totally end your flying and possibly your life. You check your aircraft every annual, better check your own systems.
So this is what I did-and you need to also do. First, if you are male and over 50, get your gown on and get your prostate checked-yearly. It is not that bad, missing this diagnosis will result in prostate cancer traveling to your bones. This hurts. You also will die a slow painful death.
Next, get a colonoscopy. You need one every 5-10 years. I will admit that the prep is about as fun as an IRS audit, so get a lot of reading material in the bathroom, but the main event I slept through. Colon cancer is another slow painful death. The “borescope” exam is not bad, it will give you peace of mind or find the start of something bad that can be corrected. A friend had this done just for screening and they found the start of a cancer, she is now cured. If she had waited a year, the story would be much different.
The next thing to do is a cardiac screening. This is simple, just a blood draw and some measurements. Know your body mass index (BMI). If it is too high, lose weight and exercise. Know your BP-if it is high, get it lower. The labs will look at any diabetes (high blood sugar) and your lipid (fat in the blood) levels. Preventing heart disease and stroke is much better that trying to recover from it. In fact, a lot of folks don't recover and lie in bed getting nutrition through a tube in their gut and having strangers put them in a shower a few times a week. Not a pretty sight.
Another issue is skin cancer. Arizona, along with Australia, have the highest rate of melanoma in the world. If this type of skin cancer gets greater than 1mm thick, cancer cells are traveling through your circulatory system and will set up shop in your brain. You usually find out about this when this cancer causes a seizure or sudden loss of function of part of your body. By then, your time left on the planet is measured in days to months. Find this one early. See a Dermatologist at least yearly.
I am proud to admit that I did all this in under one month. I was shocked to find out my cholesterol is way too high. I exercise and eat relatively healthy. I just make extra cholesterol-it's a genetic issue. So I am now on the appropriate medication.
For the females, get breast mammography. A family history really puts you at risk. While you are at it, get your flu shots for the season.
The “annual inspections” for your health are more important that your aircraft annuals. There are not a lot of spare parts you can get to fix your diseased body. Even if you don't care, I'd bet there is someone in you life that cares-so take care of yourself.
On a final note, who is responsible for your health? If you answer anything other than “I am,” you are dead wrong.