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September 3, 2014 / 8 Elul, 5774
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Being An Ostrich Can Be Hazardous To Your Health


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I recently went to a shul that I had not been to for several years, and looked forward to meeting and greeting friends and acquaintances I hadn’t seen in quite a while. And I did. Most looked the same – a few wrinkles here and a few extra pounds there, but no noteworthy differences.

However, the vast change in the widower of a friend shocked, saddened and angered me. Though still middle-aged, he looked as if he had aged two decades. He seemed to have shrunk – both physically and mentally. His clothes did not fit properly and his general look was unkempt. He had a woe-begotten look on his face, and mumbled an unconvincing “fine” when I asked him how he was doing. It was obvious that he was lost without his wife.

The sorrow I felt was the kind you experience when someone you consider a gitteh neshama does something foolhardy and ends up damaged, like failing to wear a seatbelt and becoming paralyzed in a car crash. I felt anguish because my friend’s death was a tragedy that might have been prevented.

She had ignored an “in your face” indication of a potentially life-threatening problem. She had found a lump that should have been investigated in a timely manner, but she ignored it for a very long time. It was almost as if my friend had resurrected and embraced the childhood belief that if you close your eyes, the monster does not exist. If you can’t see it, then it isn’t there.

But that does not work in the real world. Refusal to acknowledge danger signals do not make them go away.

Months later, when she was by racked with physical weakness and pain, she opened her eyes. And the boogeyman was still there – and had grown more menacing. It is hard to say if early intervention would have made a difference in the ultimate outcome. But I do know that it is easier to put out a small campfire than a forest fire. The devastation to her family could have been postponed and she may have been able to walk more of her children to the chuppah and cuddled a few more grandchildren. Instead, several bear her name.

The price of deliberate obliviousness is very high – emotionally, physically, socially, and financially. Widowed spouses buckle under the heavy responsibilities and burdens of day-to-day living. Simchos are minimized by empty chairs, and grandchildren are deprived of creating memories because magic moments cannot be shared with those who no longer are there.

Sometimes, the inclination to take care of a potential problem is there, but people refrain from doing so if there is a lack of medical coverage. This reality can result in avoidance and ultimately “gehakte tzores.” (anguish causing problems).

I was told by a friend that her machutun, – a diabetic with no health insurance – delayed getting treatment for a small cut that did not heal, and ultimately it infected his whole body. A big part of the problem was that he didn’t even know he was diabetic. He had not had blood work done for years. He had no clue how dangerous a small cut could potentially be. His first grandchild was born a few months later. He and his siblings only know him through photos.

There are so many middle class families who are playing Russian roulette with their lives because they have no health coverage. Getting coverage should be their number one priority. In far too many cases, however, money that should be set aside for this purpose is used for expenses that have more to do with vanity than with actual need – like updating furniture, spending Yom Tov in hotels, and trips.

Unfortunately, people think that if they feel well, then they don’t need to go to the doctor, dentist, or optometrist for an annual checkup. (Brain, eye, facial and oral tumors can be revealed during routine eye tests and dental work). But that’s exactly when you should go. Because if you are feeling well when a medical problem is discovered, chances are that any problematic find can be resolved successfully because it is still just a “low-flame” – and not yet a conflagration.

I am due for a second colonoscopy, as my first one was done nearly a decade ago. It is not the most pleasant medical procedure – but neither is childbirth – but at the end of the day, it is worth it. I remember having to refrain from eating solid food for about 30 hours, and gulping down what seemed like gallons of an odious smelling liquid that a thirsty dog would run from.

When I was asked by the nurse taking my medical history why I was getting a colonoscopy, I told her that this was just a screening (like a first mammogram) as I had reached the age when it was considered prudent to get one. Now I had peace of mind – at least in that department – for a decade. The patient next to me, however, was there because she was experiencing worrisome symptoms. Like many people, she opted for a medical examination when she was already not well. Another patient was told his test showed he had polyps – a benign growth that could mutate into colon cancer. His decision to have a screening probably saved his life.

So now it is time to book another one. Any hesitation to do so was erased by the passing not so long ago of a childhood classmate after a lengthy battle with colon cancer.

When a shidduch is being considered, there are so many questions posed by both sides regarding support and other finances. I strongly suggest that the issue of medical insurance – and life insurance – be broached. Both are necessary. What good is yichus, good looks, or moods if there is even a slight possibility that a lack of health care can take a spouse away prematurely, leaving emotionally and financially distressed survivors?

It is crucial that young, old and in-between have health insurance so that they can follow Hashem’s commandment to preserve their lives. Health care is a must, not a luxury. Borrow, beg, or give up your second car and walk if you have to, but make medical coverage your number one priority. And when there is coverage, be scrupulous about getting your annual checkups and screenings.

If you suspect a problem, if you are experiencing atypical symptoms don’t be an ostrich. If the problem persists, get it checked out. There is no need to panic at every little bump, lump or ache. But if it feels different than normal or lasts longer than normal, don’t hide your head in the sand.

As I have mentioned before, I have had thyroid cancer twice –nine years apart. I could have assumed I was cured, for I had reached that “5 year” milestone – and then some.

I could have forgone for my blood workups and scans – with their costly and inconvenient pre and post preparations, which means two weeks of not eating foods that could contain salt – including all dairy products, fish, anything with egg yolk in it (most breads and some pastas) as well as processed foods – and being radioactive and avoiding pregnant women and children for a few days. In our community that means becoming a hermit.

But had I done so I would have been wrong – possibly dead wrong! It is incumbent on you to do your hishtadlut – the rest is up to Hashem.

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