6/29/2012 10:09 AM
By Ken Woodhouse
I am lucky to not only have a job that I enjoy, but also to work for an organization that puts a high value on employee health and wellness. In addition to having a staff Wellness Committee (on which I serve), the company hosts annual wellness screenings, offered free of charge to employees on its health insurance plan. The screening provides a comprehensive health risk assessment, as well as early detection for a variety of health issues.
I think most people understand and respect the fact that a person’s health is a very personal matter. Our HR department makes it clear that participating in the screening is entirely voluntary and that our scores are confidential (results are sent from the third party provider directly to our homes and our employer never sees them).
As an adult CHD patient who advocates, fundraises, and blogs publicly about the issue, I am pretty open about my heart health. Colleagues and friends are sometimes reluctant to ask questions for fear of seeming insensitive, but I appreciate their interest. I am comfortable talking about my CHD, not only as a way of sharing my own story, but also as a way to raise awareness for the CHD community.
I also take a lot of pride in my overall health and level of physical activity, and I love bicycling. Most people who know me—whether in person or through my blog—are aware of this passion, and most understand the basic lifestyle that typically accompanies any athlete: healthy eating, no smoking, etc.
With all this being fairly common knowledge about me, I was surprised to be caught off-guard when I went for my annual wellness screening a couple weeks ago. While filling out the necessary paperwork, one of my colleagues sat down next to me to do the same thing (unfortunately, this particular colleague doesn’t always understand or respect personal space). While reading through the health questionnaire—out loud, no less—she eventually gets to the question about tobacco use. “Well, I know for a fact that this gentleman next to me is not a tobacco user,” is the next thing I hear her announce. I suppose this is her way of trying to interact with me casually, but I can’t help but feel my skin crawling. I simply ignore her.
Conveniently we work on the same floor, so she and I have a chat later that morning about the (supposed) confidential nature of those health screenings. I remind her that they are intended to be private and that, even though her comment was actually a statement on my healthy lifestyle, it was not appropriate for her to make any remark one way or another. She did apologize, if for no other reason than being embarrassed about it or called out on her behavior.
Surprisingly, that encounter grated on my nerves for the rest of the day. Why would a passing comment, harmless as it was, get under my skin like that? Why was I—who talk and write openly about something as serious as a congenital heart defect—so bothered by an awkward colleague who made a statement about my lack of tobacco use? And then it hit me. Someone else attempted to take control of a conversation about my health without my knowledge or permission. Someone else, who has a loose connection to me at best, thought it was OK to make such a proclamation on my behalf.
As irritating as this was, it helped teach me something. I realized that one of the reasons I have become so comfortable being open about my CHD is because it was my choice to do so. No one forced me to post it on Facebook or to start a public blog about it. After privately struggling through some challenging heart health decisions last fall, I took the initiative on my own to make the conversation about my CHD much more public. It wasn’t anyone else’s decision. I was in control, and I was calling the shots.
I encourage you to do the same. Once you have the right tools and the necessary medical advice, take control of your own health. Become empowered and call the shots!
Ken Woodhouse was born in 1981 with tetralogy of Fallot and had his first (and, so far, only) open heart surgery at the age of eight months. He is an avid cyclist, having completed numerous multi-day rides, including the 7-day, 560-mile AIDS/LifeCycle ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2010. Ken writes his own blog about living a healthy and active life with CHD.