Checking the Engine: Telling the Truth to Your Doctor and Other Tips

February 6, 2020 Updated: February 26, 2020
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When January rolls around, it’s time for me to put away Christmas decorations, make—and all too often, break—some New Year’s resolutions, send off birthday greetings to a few friends and relatives, pause to remember the woman, now deceased but still beloved, who became my wife in January of 1978, and brace up for at least another two months of cold weather.

It’s also time for my annual physical.

My Friend Sam

My physician—I’ll call him Sam—practices medicine in Asheville, North Carolina. Though I moved to Front Royal, Virginia, over three years ago, I still make an annual trek to Asheville for my physical because of my respect for Sam’s abilities.

Sam and I know each other well. Four of his children passed through the homeschool seminars I once taught in Asheville, I’ve dined with him and his lovely wife on numerous occasions, he was my youngest son’s basketball coach and later attended his wedding here in Virginia, and he once stuck by me in a terrible time of personal crisis having nothing to do with my physical health.

This examination in Sam’s office usually involves a good deal of conversation. Sam sets my appointments for 7 a.m., possibly because that early hour allows for longer visits. We catch up on family news as Sam runs his tests and makes notes on his computer, and of course, we discuss my health. Sam always asks if I am still indulging in my bad habits, drinking too much on too many evenings and neglecting to take enough exercise.

Bad Habits

When Sam asks me how many drinks I typically imbibe, or about my ineffectual attempts to get into shape, I try to be as truthful as possible. What would be the point of deceiving a doctor other than shame? Once I asked him how often he thought his patients lied to him when asked questions about their diet, their exercise, their own bad habits, and their prescriptions.

“About 85 percent of the time,” Sam said, a figure I had trouble believing until I researched the topic online and found data confirming his estimate.

On another visit, Sam asked me, “So how do you feel about your bad habits? The drinking? The failure to exercise?”

“Guilty,” I told him. “Always guilty.”

“Let me tell you a story about a patient who was just here yesterday,” he said. “He’s a man in his seventies who’s overweight. For years, he’s tried to shed some pounds but just can’t seem to do it. He was telling me again how much he wanted to lose weight, and how he had failed, and I told him, ‘Look, Jim, you’re 76 years old. Why don’t you drop the guilt and just enjoy those sausage biscuits and hamburgers you love?’ Well, he just exploded. ‘You’re my doctor,’ he said. ‘You’re not supposed to say things like that.’”

Sam looked at me for a moment and said, “Here’s the point: If you’re going to indulge, then at least enjoy the ride.”

Good News, Bad News

Once he asked me how I was feeling mentally and spiritually.

“I’m happy about 80 percent of the time,” I said. “I think that’s pretty good.”

Sam shook his head. “You need to marry again. You need to find a widow and remarry. And here’s the good news. With every year that goes by, more men your age are dying than women. So the pool for widows is expanding.”

“That’s not good news,” I said. “It’s terrible news. I’m a man. That means I could soon be one of those dead guys.”

Helping Me to See Myself

For several years I was in the habit of waking every morning around 3 a.m., getting up to read or write, and then falling back asleep around 5 a.m. I asked Sam if I could do anything about my sleep pattern.

“How long do you stay in bed after you wake up?” he asked.

“At least five minutes,” I said.

Sam burst out laughing. “Give it 30 minutes, if you really want to try to fall back asleep.”

As on other occasions, Sam had helped me to see myself. This past visit, for example, we returned to the subject of exercise. “I get up in the morning and promise myself I’ll go to the gym, but then evening rolls around, and I vote against it.”

“You don’t need a gym,” Sam said. “Just go outside and walk 30 minutes a day.”

So these days I’m giving that advice a shot.

Some Suggestions

Now for some takeaway points for my readers. This advice may seem trite and stale, but please hear me out.

*Tell the truth to your doctor. If you’re a smoker and your physician asks how many cigarettes you smoke a day, try to deliver an accurate count. If you have trouble losing weight, tell your caregiver what you eat and how much exercise you take. We may justifiably fib to a host that supper was delicious, we can tell a child he did a great job on the soccer field even though he flubbed numerous plays, but we are fools if we lie to our doctors.

*Develop some rapport with your doctor. We always hear about doctors needing a “good bedside manner.” It’s much easier to practice that bedside manner when patients bring humor and understanding into the examining room. A physician like Sam deals daily with problems ranging from a chest cold to cirrhosis. Facing these problems every day, particularly the catastrophes, takes a toll. My father was a physician, a general practitioner who also delivered over 600 babies while living eight years in a small town. My wife was an intensive care nurse and later an instructor in nursing. I have witnessed firsthand the stress demanded by such jobs. Understand that your physician is human and stressed. Aim for engagement.

*Get regular checkups. Years ago, after my first physical, Sam told me I was past due for a colonoscopy. “At your age, you need one,” he said, “so we’ll schedule it.” Afterward, when Sam told me the results of that examination and how the team had to cut out several polyps, he said, “Good thing we did this. You’d have been in the ground in another three or four years.”

*Most of all, take care of yourself. So much of our good health depends not on medical care, but on eating the right foods, exercising, and avoiding bad habits.

Time, I guess, for me to heed my own advice.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.