I hate physical examinations: Nakedness, prodding, touching, questions. Everything assaults dignity and pries into places and thoughts that beg to be left alone.
Physicals take away our ability to ignore the aging process and to pretend about our health. I, for instance, never felt that any of my bad habits were really catching up with me and secretly believed that there was always time to change things.
I was stubborn in those beliefs and steadfast in my ability to ignore any words from any doctors that sounded the least bit threatening to my fantasies of immortality.
At the beginning of my remake 3 1/2 months ago, however, several doctors found the words to get my attention. Dr. Robert Bell, a friend and my physician, said them on the phone: "Remar, I'm afraid you're not as well as you think." He paused. I remember the pause very well and don't know how to describe its feeling other than lonely. "I'm afraid you have some heart disease."
What was this man talking about? I wanted to be a hunk, not worry about my health. Even before I could try to hide from the words, Dr. Bell emphasized them with specifics: Mild left ventricular dysfunction. Reduced left ventricular ejection fraction. Drop in the stroke volume. Abnormality on the inferior and posterior walls of the left ventricle.
I did not understand what all this meant specifically but knew the words were about the beating of my heart, and it wasn't beating right. Then Von Johnson at the United States Sports Academy tested my oxygen consumption per kilogram of weight, a measure of cardiovascular fitness. He did not comment on the results, but simply handed me a chart entitled "Risk Category" with my name at the top and a red circle around the fifth line from the bottom, the one labeled "very high."
And then Dr. Ken Cooper at the Cooper Clinic put me on another treadmill and poked and pried some more and said if I didn't change my ways I could look forward to bypass surgery, developing angina pectoris, heart attack or sudden death. Sudden death. I don't know why that sounded worse than death alone, but it did. Does sudden death mean there's no time for regrets? Does it hurt?
I tell you all this because today Dr. Cooper gave me my first complete health evaluation since I took up clean and godly living. And it, in a way, makes the poking and prying worthwhile. In 3 1/2 months my insides have changed. Most of the liquids and tissues and pumping and purifying and growing and dying things have responded quickly to the changes in my consumption and exercise patterns.
I say most because I completely killed some things such as a portion of my lung capacity, and I may have done away with some working liver cells (though I have plenty), and I may not earn back the full function of my heart (though I don't know that yet, either).
But look at what has changed:
My body fat has dropped from 29.7 percent of my total weight to 16.97 percent, a drop of 33 pounds of blubber. Aside from the esthetic nicety here, the loss of body fat dramatically cuts down my risk of further heart disease and a dozen other diseases.
My white blood cell count has dropped from 7,100 to 5,800, a nearly 20 percent drop bringing me much closer to the median. (A normal white blood cell count means your body is not fighting an infection.)
My triglycerides have dropped nearly 50 percent. Generally speaking, high triglycerides mean high fat in the blood, which increases the risk of arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
My cardiac risk category based on oxygen consumption per kilogram of weight has dropped from very high to low.
My GGT, the liver enzyme that is a nice fingerprint of the steady drinker, dropped more than 50 percent. A continuing increase in GGT could mean serious liver disease.
My treadmill stress test gave me the most satisfying opinion because I could really savor my progress there immediately. The treadmill gauges many things: aerobic capacity, muscle strength, endurance, cardiovascular fitness, and determination. I added the last category. Three and a half months ago, I collapsed after walking 15 minutes and achieving a maximum heart rate of 171 beats per minute. Today, I walked 23 minutes and quit when my heart beat reached 174. Though that 50 percent improvement may not seem like that much time in minutes, it is. Treadmills increase in angle every minute you walk on them. My improvement over the months moved me from a "fair" to an "excellent" aerobic category and literally won me a gold star from Dr. Cooper. The star is made of foil and probably cost a mil, but I value it immensely.
As I write this, I am sitting in the main waiting room of the Cooper Clinic building itself. Cooper opened this place 15 years ago, then added an aerobics research center and a very fancy gymnasium and guest lodge. The whole place looks like the campus of a very prosperous small college -- stately buildings, old trees, joggers and sports cars everywhere.
Being examined here isn't actually more comfortable physically (they poke you in more places than a regular doctor does, I think), but it all does feel rather cushy. If, for instance, they served more than water or barium for breakfast and if all the victims, uh, patients, around you had on clothes rather than bathrobes, the setting could be for one of those Texas soap operas.
That's the way it should appear, I guess, since an exam here isn't cheap in the dollar sense. A really complete physical exam like mine, including an upper and lower gastro-intestinal series (which has to be the most unpleasant thing next to death itself), costs $965 for 1 1/2 days of testing.
But as with most of the good preventive medicine/diagnostic clinics around the country (there are quite a few, most for-profit), the Cooper Clinic is more thorough than you might want to imagine.
Dr. Cooper took my history.
The blood department analyzed my blood.
A psychologist administered a psychological test. (I "stick to a task until mastery.")
A respiratory specialist evaluated my lung function. (15 percent loss, smoking.)
An audiologist checked my hearing. ("Outstanding at all frequencies.")
A dentist checked my mouth.
A technician stripped me naked and weighed me under water. (Because fat floats, this technique is considered the most accurate way of determining the amount of body fat.)
Dr. Cooper and Dr. Arno Jensen examined virtually every inch of my exterior and interior.
Finally, Georgia Costas, the clinic's director of nutrition, met with me to plan my diet more carefully.
After all that, no one can pretend or ignore the realities of his health. And for that reason alone I like these clinics. A good physical can save your life.
As you can tell, I am proud of my interior gains because what's inside gives me life. But, after 3 1/2 months, I'm different on the outside, too. So different that I'm going to strip next time.
Muscles and health,
NEXT: The outer unveiling.