One big selling point for going vegan is that we have a much lower risk of getting sick - both little sick, with things like colds, and big sick, with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and cancer. But we're not immune to anything. We're still fragile little humans living in these amazingly resilient bodies. I have a friend who calls them "human suits," which I think is absolutely perfect.
Perhaps one problem with feeling so good most of the time is that we might want to ignore our body's signals when we're not feeling so good. This happened to me a couple of weeks ago.
I was in San Jose, juggling my time between my elderly father and house-and-dog sitting for my sister, with lots of freeway driving in between the two. It was hot, I was probably a bit dehydrated, and definitely a lot stressed. Suddenly, as I stood up from a rushed lunch, I was clobbered with something new that I couldn't ignore.
My heart felt like it was in four separate pieces, and each one was bouncing wildly in my chest. I could feel it on the outside, and in my pulse, and it was super scary. So what did I do? I got back in the car to run to the airport to pick up my sister. I wasn't really ignoring what was happening, but I certainly was telling it to wait a little while until I had time to deal with it.
Long (very long) story short, I later went to the ER in a friendly little hospital that decided I needed a big hospital and stuffed me into an ambulance to make the transfer. No sirens or lights, which was kind of disappointing, but at least they didn't think I was going to die on the freeway.
During my stay I was poked full of holes and filled with fluids and something to calm my heart back into a normal rhythm. I had 3 EKGs, a treadmill stress test (which became extra stressful when they decided to add some radioactive gunk to the IV gadget stuck in my arm while I was jogging along at top speed, on a steep slant, and holding on with only one hand), a CAT scan (the reason for the radioactive gunk), and an ultrasound (which I really enjoyed, actually, because I got to see my heart in cross section, looking like a happy-dancing monkey with cymbals).
They tried really, really hard to find something wrong with me, but every single test came back normal, normal, normal. There is no heart damage. I don't have diabetes or thyroid disease. I don't have lots of things, I didn't have a heart attack, and by all accounts, there is nothing wrong with me. Hooray! But still... this terrible, scary thing had happened to me, and I needed to know how to interpret it.
Nearly 24 hours after I'd walked into the first ER, I was sent home with a diagnosis of "atrial fibrillation" and a prescription for some horribly toxic meds that made me feel just awful. Not one person, of the very many who came to see me, asked me about my diet or exercise or stress load. Not one would even sort of entertain the idea that the whole thing might in some way be stress related.
Fortunately, a week later, back at home in Portland, my own doctor determined that my diagnosis was not a life sentence as a "heart patient" with a chronic condition, but more likely an isolated incident brought on by... stress. I like her better.
She told me to toss the meds and agreed with my plan to continue taking low-dose aspirin to reduce my risk of stroke, and to add some heart empowering herbs like hawthorn and motherwort. She suggested paying particular attention to hydration and electrolytes in hot weather (hello, coconut water!), as well as potassium and magnesium rich foods. And perhaps most wonderful of all, she did not suggest that I needed to add animal protein into my diet.
My first thought as I walked into the ER was, Oh crap, this is really scary. My second thought was, Oh crap, even with insurance this is going to be way too expensive. And my third thought, the one that really freaked me out was, OH CRAP, my credibility as a healthy vegan is completely shot!!!
But guess what? Two weeks later, back at home, gathering myself back together, I want it out there that yes, vegans get sick too, and it doesn't make us wrong or bad or irresponsible about our diet and lifestyle choices. What it makes us is human, in our cute little human suits.
My own instinctive diagnosis is "confused heart," or maybe "conflicted heart" or "fragmented heart." It felt like it was in pieces, all pulling in different directions, when in fact, that's exactly what's going on in my life right now. I'm trying to be in too many places, both physically and energetically, and trying to be there for too many people. The only thing that makes any sense to do right now is to pull it all back in to center, regain my balance, and let a few things manage without me for a little while.
I'm always telling my stressed out friends to "put their own oxygen mask on first." That's something I need to do for myself too. I'm no good to my dad (or my sisters, or my kids, or my friends, or my readers) if I'm not in proper alignment on the inside, (no matter how fabulous I look on the outside!). I ignored my own need to take care of myself, to keep my own balance, and to "listen to my heart" when it comes to the difficult parts of life. Well, my heart sure found a way of getting my attention.
A vegan diet can do a lot to keep us healthy, but we need to take even more personal responsibility for our own well being. I'm stubborn in not wanting to put my own needs first. A lot of us are. My trip to the medical world taught a couple of things. First, that I have no interest in staying in that world. And second, that I can do even more than eat well and exercise to keep myself healthy. I have some internal, heart-centered work to do, and now is the time to do it. I need to pay attention to me, or I won't be any good to anyone else.
Message received, with heartfelt thanks.