Everything Is Fine Until —

 

Everything in the universe has a beginning and an end, a birth and a death. Logically, we all know that. Logically, we all know someday we will die. Logically, we know it could be any day. Referring to my first experience with arthritis my doctor quipped, “Arthritis is just a fancy word for the parts are wearing out.” Our demise is a given — one fine day a very necessary part will wear out. Until then, everything is fine. Oh, the arthritic fingers are a bother. But really everything is fine — until it’s not.

As someone who retired in good health, I expected the good health to continue for a very long time. Then, this spring I began having unusual difficulty getting a full breath. My dad was a smoker at the time when the vagaries of second-hand smoke were unknown. I often sarcastically refer to my allergies and chronic bronchitis as his legacy. On more than one occasion spring in the garden has sent me to the emergency room with what turned out to be pleurisy instead of a heart attack. This shortness of breath didn’t feel like that.

I have lived through my share of crises, health or otherwise. I rarely take flight but instead go into fight mode. On the Myer-Briggs scale my personality is that of a supportive controller. Martin tells me that means I’ll support you as long as I’m in control. I know there is much in life we can’t control, but I at least want to know what’s happening and ultimately make an informed decision. First stop toward that end was my doctor’s office.

When a lung X-ray and EKG showed all was normal, the doc decided to send me to a cardiologist. I also have a heart valve defect. Was my inability to get a full breath just a really bad allergy season or was the valve failing? Now, I was trying not to panic. Easier said than done as my mind swirled with images of a laparoscopy to replace my ailing valve, not to mention the drain on my bank account despite an excellent insurance policy. As negative emotions ran away with my brain my breathing became more shallow. I even felt a twinge or two of chest discomfort along with some palpitations. Stress was creeping in. Or was this the pre-cursor to a heart attack?

A super thin very calm man, the cardiologist was encouraging while at the same time ordering a stress test and echocardiogram. It had been some twenty years since my last ultrasound to look at my heart valve. He assured me with, “We know a lot more about this condition now. It was often misdiagnosed in the 1990’s.” Incredulous! You mean I might not even have the condition I’ve been worrying about?

Well, that was great news, but I still stressed, my mindfulness and meditation not doing nearly what I hoped it would in this situation. In addition, I was foregoing my daily walk, my labored breathing putting a damper on remaining active. Worry kept me up at night. I wasn’t sleeping well. The pounds I lost last year began to silently slip back around my waistline. Martin kept telling me it was all in my head. Thank you, honey. Yes, mindset I told myself. Mindset.

On tests day I got up at 4:45 so I could eat breakfast. My instructions were nothing to eat two hours before the test scheduled for 7 a.m. All stress tests were performed at this now-insane-to-my-retired-self hour. Having pre-checked in over the phone a few days prior, I dutifully showed up before 7 only to be told the technician assigned to perform my tests would be late because she was moving!!! And, the woman delivering this news didn’t know when she was going to show up for work. Whaaaaaaaat? I was already stressed over the stress test. This rude news sent me spiraling. After much ado, 40 minutes later, the department supervisor set up the testing.

My cardiologist appeared for the stress test, which revealed a heart functioning as it should under stress. Whew! One down. The supervisor did the echocardiogram, delivering the results to my cardiologist that afternoon. My heart valve defect turned out to be so minor, my heart is considered to be no different, than the heart of someone without the defect. Double whew!! The shortness of breath is attributed to a really bad allergy season AND stress. Stress further aggravated by the challenge of understanding hospital and doctor bills, an overcharge to me for my portion of the bill and the pulling teeth (only 3 phone calls with a lot of wrangling necessary) to get my money refunded.

Worst pine pollen season in years

Worst pine pollen season in years

Shortly after the tests, my breathing returned to normal.  The Asthma Center reported record pine pollen levels this spring.  But, by June, the thick pine pollen covering every square inch of my property, house and car subsided and washed away in a spring rain.  I could get a full breath, returned to taking my daily walk and slept through the night again.  My doctor prescribed a different medication regimen.  I hope next spring is not a repeat.

Everything is fine now — until the next time it is not. This experience highlighted my mortal condition. We all depend on our physical and mental well-being to provide a happy productive retirement. Toward that end my goal is to stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible. The optimal way to live and leave this world is to be healthy and then, one day, you suddenly just die.  Few of us will go out in such a way. Until then, everything is fine.

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WHERE THERE’S A WILL

As a young woman I worked for a bank in a branch office. Prior to opening each morning, the teller assigned to the task, went through the newspaper obituaries. If any of our customers was reported deceased, the teller placed a hold on their accounts, including joint accounts, and sealed their safe deposit box. Sometimes, even people with a Last Will and Testament, left their relatives in a bind when the only place that held a copy of the will was the sealed safe deposit box. Waiting for a probate judge’s order to open the box takes time and costs money. Anytime you have to go to court for anything, you should see dollar signs. However, many people did no planning at all, dying intestate, meaning without a will. We had a saying at the bank, “If you don’t have a will, the state has one for you.” You may intend for all your worldly possessions to go to your spouse but, depending on the state where you live, without a will, state law may dictate your estate is split evenly among your spouse and children, no matter what the age of the children. Don’t assume your children will do the right thing by mom or dad and give the money back to the surviving spouse. And with probate courts inundated with cases, an attorney recently told me it can take up to a year for an estate with a will to get through probate. This is reality, folks.

We all know someone who died suddenly, perhaps from a heart attack or car accident. Yet, most of us put off estate planning thinking, “We’ll get to it later.” Yes, we all do it. Even me. Despite all the life lessons from my banking days, until recently, I had not updated my will for years. No one wants to think about dying. We are a frail type, we humans, who don’t want to face our mortality. We like to think we always have more time. We fool ourselves into thinking, ‘later’ will always be there for us. The heart attack or car accident isn’t the way we will go. Oh no, not us. The truth is we have no idea the day, the hour, the minute or the how. My dad used to joke about it saying, “Something’s gonna get ya. Nobody gets out alive.” Then, he’d laugh at his own joke. Fortunately, both he and my mother left a plan, allowing we children to grieve instead of wending our way through the overwhelming task of trying to figure out what they wanted in the way of funeral arrangements or how to pay for them. There’s enough to decide even with a will. Without a road map, it’s really stressful. That’s how family squabbles happen. And, who wants that to be their legacy?

Give the gift of a will

Give the gift of a will

End of life planning is complicated these days. In South Carolina, where I live, probate court can be avoided by having a trust agreement, rather than just a will. Then, there are revocable trusts and irrevocable trusts. And, just in case you forgot some old account someplace or another, a will can be embedded into the trust. This isn’t an ad for attorneys, but, the truth of the matter is, you probably need one to advise you on what is best for your circumstance in the state in which you live. Just in case that isn’t enough to think about, matters are further complicated by the need for Powers of Attorney for both health care and financial management. These documents cover any eventuality where you become unable to make your own decisions regarding your health and money management. Since each document is separate from the other, the health care attorney-in-fact doesn’t necessarily have to be the same person as the financial attorney-in-fact. Before naming someone to either of these positions, be sure to discuss your decision with that person asking them for their agreement to accept the task. Nobody likes surprises. This is serious business, so cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. You may also be asked to name alternates because, as we know, stuff happens, and your primary may become deceased or incapacitated themselves, rendering them incapable of carrying out the task. Your attorney will most likely ask you to name a runner up, or two. Whew!

Although this is a serious subject requiring serious consideration, action and, let’s not forget, money, it is the best gift you can give to your survivors. Despite my feet dragging on the matter of updating my planning, the big lesson – well one of them – I learned in life is this. If you don’t make a decision and take action, time and circumstance will make the decision for you and you may not like the outcome. To that, someone said to me about making a will, “What do I care? I’ll be gone!” If you care about your survivors, whether spouse, children, siblings, significant others or grandchildren, give them the gift of not having to squabble over your health care, funeral arrangements and money. Give them the gift of being able to just grieve without worry about the details because you left a detailed plan. And, one last thing – no excuses – dreary as it is, there’s no time like the present to create your plan.