How my dad went from junk food and smoking to healthy role model

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My father, feeding his grandson, had a stroke eight years ago that served as a health wake-up call. Today, my dad is making healthier choices.

BY DENISE LAU
denise_lau@hmsa.com

When Being808 talked about celebrating American Heart Month, I thought of my dad.

Eight years ago, at around 56 years old, my dad had a stroke.

My dad is your typical local boy, born and raised in Ewa, Oahu. When he was younger, he liked to surf and was pretty active. His mom was an excellent cook and housewife and I remember always having the best food at grandma’s house! Looking back, all that local food (and some heavy drinking and smoking) were part of my memories of visiting him when I was younger.

As my dad got older he still ate a lot of local food, but his metabolism slowed down and he started to pick up weight. I would describe him as stocky and strong growing up, like a lot of other Japanese-Portuguese men in Hawaii. In fact, so much so, that I’d sometimes see a guy from behind on the street wearing dad shorts and a Polo shirt and swear that it was my dad until the person would turn around.

Bad choices

After my dad divorced my stepmom, he started hanging out with friends a lot. He would smoke and go have a drink with his pals, which he said in retrospect was really why it was so hard to quit smoking. He could go through two packs a night if he was out all night with friends who smoked. He also ate whatever he wanted. Since he lived by himself, he cooked less and started to eat more junk food without any thought of his salt or sugar intake.

He also didn’t get regular check-ups. Before he had a stroke, he hadn’t seen a doctor in six or seven years.

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My dad poses with me at my high school graduation. After he divorced my stepmom, his smoking habit worsened and he ate out more.

About a month before his stroke, he passed out while driving and his car ended up on the sidewalk of a busy street. When he came to, a friend found him and drove his car home. He was so scared by the incident that he stopped driving. But he didn’t seek care.

Then, one day, he was grocery shopping when he felt dizzy and short of breath. The left side of his body went numb. At first he was in denial, while clearly having symptoms of a stroke. But eventually, he realized something was really wrong and called a friend who took him to the emergency room.

He was admitted to the hospital for a week. He had a blocked artery and had surgery to put a stent in. He doesn’t recall all the exact numbers but the doctors were alarmed at how high his blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar was. He had no idea he was diabetic but when admitted to the hospital the doctor said his blood glucose level was sky-high. He recalls now that he had signs of diabetes and just brushed it off as part of aging, as he was thirsty more and urinating more often.

A turning point

Looking back, he knew his lifestyle wasn’t doing him any good but was shocked he had so many problems. He was always the type of guy that didn’t believe it necessary to visit the doctor yearly and when he did go he wouldn’t listen to the advice to lose weight and quit smoking.

When he was discharged, he knew he was lucky. He also felt a bit lost. Overnight, he had to change his lifestyle. He left with eight to nine medications he had to take daily for his heart, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. He was referred to classes for diabetes and kidney education.

lau3Scared straight, he followed the advice on eating healthy and being more active and lost 40 pounds over the following year or so. He watched his portions when he ate and would usually order fish, brown rice and veggies when he would eat out. He learned to love cooking again and freezing portions to save for later.

Within the past year, he started a physically active job as a groundskeeper. He likes staying active and enjoys working outside and wants to do work “as long as I can, at least another 5 years or so,” he says.

“Even if I stop working at 67 or 68 I don’t feel that retiring young is good for you. After I retire, I’ll still do volunteer work or fix things around my apartment complex. Staying at home and being inactive, it isn’t good for you. I say keep active, it’s worth it to keep your stamina up and feel useful.”

Making changes that stuck

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My dad, shown in these photos with my children, is now a role model for healthy living. He exercises, eats well and keeps busy.

Because of atrial fibrillation (or an irregular heartbeat) my dad has a pacemaker now. At first, he didn’t want it but his doctor said that the modern pacemakers have improved a lot from the ones in the past. He feels better with a regular heartbeat and not so out of breath. He said the only negative to having a pacemaker is having to tell airport personnel that he can’t go through metal detectors.

I asked my dad for advice to other men out there who are in the same boat he used to be in. Here’s what he said:

“Exercise, you don’t want to feel old before your time, I can still feel a little of the effects of my mini-stroke, though you can’t tell looking at me my right hand is a lot stronger than my left. I like being active and it’s worth it. I feel so much better, I have more stamina than I’ve had in years. I don’t own a car and I walk everywhere and that has been key to managing my diabetes and keeping my weight down. If I move less, I’ll gain five pounds back and feel it right away and I’ll work on getting more active to feel better.

Also, listen to your doctors. Don’t be stubborn like me. If you can quit smoking and lose weight you can still be strong as you age. I’m only on a few medications now and the ones I do have I’m on a much lower dose and my labs look OK. Try to keep a positive attitude too. I think that a good outlook in life will keep you healthy. Being depressed doesn’t help. Focus on the small steps you need to make to improve your health. I’m enjoying life now more than I have in a long time. I’m motivated because I know what it’s like to feel sick and I’d rather feel like I do today.”

I must admit I’m a little jealous of my dad right now because his a1c (a measure of your blood glucose level in the past few months) is actually lower than mine. And that’s inspired me to work out more.

denise bio

 

Denise Lau is a content specialist at HMSA and blogs about mommyhood with her #808moms series. She has her hands full with a precocious, artistic daughter and active son. Her goal is to be healthy and fit while her kids become successful, well-rounded adults. Follow her on Twitter.

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