I went to a new doctor recently for my annual check-up. I’m healthy, so I wasn’t worried. Little did I know, I would leave the appointment concerned, convinced that I had a problem with my bones.
The appointment started off normally with a sincere, pretty Physician’s Assistant. As I sat in the pinkish, greyish hospital gown that could make anyone look unwell, the PA asked me if anyone in my family had had osteoporosis. I told her that my mom did. Did I have a history of fractures? Oh yes! When I ran cross-country in college, I had several. Do I consume dairy products? No. The PA’s brow furrowed. Did I weigh less than 128 pounds? Yes. She sighed, stared at the computer screen and typed quickly. I could tell she didn’t like my answers. I started to worry.
She told me that she was concerned about my bone density. She rattled off my risk factors: a family history, my history of fractures, weight less than 128 pounds, small frame and documented height loss (I was .25” shorter – really?!?). I told her that I could see where this was heading and it didn’t sound good.
She said even though I was younger than normal for this, they’d order a bone density test to get a baseline reading of how dense my bones were (or not), and we’d go from there.
When she asked me about my risk factors, I had plenty of answers, but when I started to give them, I sounded like I was defensive and in denial. After I gave one of my explanations (rationalizations?), I stopped.
I wanted to tell her that I had lots of stress fractures in college because my cross-country coach never gave us a day off, I wore the wrong shoes and didn’t know that I needed orthotics. I don’t consume dairy because I’m reducing my risk of Alzheimer’s Disease. And while I’m a small person, compared to my mom, I am big.
I left the office scared that I’d someday be a frail, crumpled, old woman in a nursing home with lots of painful cracks in my spine.
Most Improved Award
I didn’t sleep well that night and worried about all of that stupid Diet Coke I drank back in the day (bad for calcium absorption, I had recently learned online), but then I had an idea.
If I had a problem, I would try and fix it. In fact, I would try and win the “Most Improved Bone Density” award. I could see the award certificate framed on my office wall with a gleaming gold star.
Actually, maybe learning about my problem could be the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I would do all I could to improve my bones. I would lift weights. I’d become a real hard body with chiseled abs and biceps. I would pound down calcium-enriched plant milk all the time. I’d eat calcium-rich kale every day, maybe every meal! I’m past the bone-building stage of life, but my doctor is going to be amazed at how much my bones are going to improve, I just know it.
I called to make my appointment for the test. First available, please.
About one week later, I arrived for the appointment. Before the test, the large-boned (lucky!) technician asked me lots of questions about risk factors. All of my answers seemed wrong and were met with silence. I was nervous while the big machine scanned my spine and pelvis, but I reminded myself that at least it wasn’t looking for cancer or anything like that. I’d have the results in a week or two.
In the meantime, I was determined to win that pretend award. Every day I exercised and some days I did strength training. For a snack, I drank fortified almond milk. I made a large shredded kale salad and ate it all week.
While my new habits were good, I also started to realize that they had their limits. I thought about how despite our best efforts, eventually our bodies don’t work perfectly. We all have our weaknesses, maybe this one will be mine. I have many friends with low bone density, so I wouldn’t be alone. And while bone problems aren’t good, eventually I’ll get some medical news that’s really bad. People get that kind of heart-breaking news every day.
One week later, I received an email that my test results were available online. I waited until I had the house to myself to open them. I knew that when I read the bad news, I wanted to have a moment to cry when nobody was around.
I took a deep breath and opened the message. I read and re-read the results. At first, they didn’t make sense. My bones weren’t bad. They weren’t average. Instead, they are excellent – way above average, in fact. My hip bones are denser than 98% of women my age and ethnicity.
How could this be? Based on my risk factors, I thought that it was apparent that I had a problem. But I was wrong. I obviously have no medical training, but I’m learning that risk factors measure risk and don’t provide a diagnosis. No duh! But I had been scared and therefore not the most rational.
When I was in my prime bone-building years of my teens and 20s, I wasn’t thinking about my bones one bit. I just did what I enjoyed, which happened to be things that built strong bones (running marathons, lifting weights, circuit classes, etc). My diet must have been okay too. I’m lucky.
While I wish I could have avoided this scare of my own making, it was a good chance to think about how eventually my body, all of our bodies, will wear out. Eventually, something won’t work right.
In the meantime, I want to appreciate how well my body does function. I also want to understand on a deeper level that everything is temporary, including my physical body. Because of that, I want to appreciate every day. It’s a cliche, but it’s true.
This is such a hard lesson to learn! I learn and forget, learn and forget. Perhaps eventually my learning will outweigh my forgetting. My bone density worries were part of my Continuing Education curriculum. As crazy as it sounds, I’m grateful for that.