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FIRST PERSON //

The Health Nag

Sometimes being overbearing can save a life.

By Renée Bacher // Summer 2009
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the health nag

Jean-François Martin

Ten years ago, a lump on my husband’s neck he said was nothing had to be removed by a surgeon. Later, a scab on his temple—“It’s nothing!”—turned out to be a basal cell carcinoma. Both times the only reason Ed went to the doctor was because I made the appointment. After the carcinoma, he applied sunscreen unprompted for a month. Then he slipped back into an adolescent state of denial. I told him if he wasn’t careful, soon he’d be nothing but a nose in a jar by my side of the bed. He laughed.

It’s not that I didn’t like taking care of Ed. What bothered me was, in a relationship of equals, nagging about his health made me feel like his mother, not his wife. He, in turn, started acting like a petulant child about taking care of his health. Further fueling my anger, Ed deluded himself into thinking that mowing the lawn once a month meant he was active, and that french fries with ketchup counted as two servings of vegetables. As a result, he gained a lot of weight during our 18 years of marriage, and I didn’t see that trend changing anytime soon.

It all came to a head when Ed developed a cough that lingered for five weeks. “You should check that out as soon as we get home,” I told him. He nodded absently and turned away. I knew he was rolling his eyes. “I mean it,” I said.

We were a couple of hours into a 26-hour drive home from visiting family a thousand miles away. The cough was in its third week. “Fine,” he said, after catching his breath from a bout of hacking. I knew “fine” meant that if I called, he’d go.

I should confess that one of the things I first found attractive about Ed was how he minimized his illnesses. When he was suffering from agonizing migraines, he only wanted to be left alone. This was astonishing to me, a person whose relatives were beset with endless maladies—appendicitis, asthma, diverticulitis, fibroid tumors, sciatica, strep throat, tennis 
elbow, urinary tract infections—and who didn’t seem to mind the ensuing attention one bit. My father uses terms like benign fasciculations the way someone else might use leg cramp.

But Ed’s obliviousness about his health was no longer appealing to me. It was not appealing as I made his doctor’s appointment, nor was it appealing when, after a week on antibiotics, he was still hacking, and I had to schedule a follow-up. And it was certainly not appealing when he returned three hours after that second appointment and announced that his cough was a result of tiny pieces of a blood clot that had broken off and traveled to his lungs, and could have caused a fatal heart attack, stroke or pulmonary embolism. We sat across from each other in stunned silence, each contemplating what his early departure might mean to our three young children, and to me.

Seeing Ed’s life flash before our eyes in middle age has changed us both. After taking blood thinners for six months until he received a clean bill of health, he understands that sometimes you have to go to the doctor right away. He gets that exercise means working out until you sweat, several times a week. He has started losing weight and seems genuinely motivated to lose more.

As for me, I am still the nag. But I am no longer angry about it. We may not always like the jobs thrust upon us, but sometimes a matter-of-life-or-death job comes along, and nobody else is going to do it. My nagging, it turns out, is the reason my husband is around today. And since he is here on borrowed time, I figure I may as well enjoy him.

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