Is IT bad for your health? How our jobs might be killing us

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CIO Manage Your Work, Manage Your Life

I enjoy discussing IT and technology topics with my roundtable group of IT peers. We meet every couple of months and go around the room suggesting topics for discussion. But recently, I threw them all for a loop when I said, "The topic I’d like to talk about is: How the jobs we’re in could potentially be killing us!” Well, that certainly caught their attention, but I put the topic out there for a very good reason – I recently experienced this firsthand.

Here’s my story. The day before Thanksgiving last year, I went in for my executive physical. This was the first year that my company enforced this as a requirement for key executives and leaders – and I’m glad they did. I knew that something was a bit off with my health a few weeks prior, but I thought, "I have my physical appointment scheduled – it can wait." I was too busy to take the time to check into it, and I was sure it was nothing. Boy, was I wrong!

To keep a long story short, I told my doctor that something didn’t feel right – “I have this burning sensation in my chest after doing light activity (i.e. walking up a flight of stairs).” He immediately ordered a nuclear stress test, which involved injecting me with a radioactive solution, putting me on an EKG machine, and then having me walk fast on a treadmill to elevate my heart. It was at this point that I knew I had a bigger problem. I could not complete the stress test, and my chest felt like there were hot irons pressing down on me. The doctors started to scurry around as they asked me to sit down and relax. I didn’t know this at the time, but the stress test had induced a heart attack.

Time is of the essence

Unbeknown to me at the time, I had 99 percent blockage in the left anterior descending (LAD) artery, or what’s called the "widow maker" artery. It runs down the front of the heart and supplies the front and main wall of the heart with blood. Clearly, this was not good. My doctor said that time was of the essence and that I needed to have it fixed ASAP – either with a stent or open heart by-pass. Luckily for me, my physical was at UCLA Medical Center, so they fast-tracked me straight into cardiac intensive care. There, five or more nurses and doctors immediately descended on me. I was prepped very quickly and rushed to the Catheter Lab where, after a 90-minute procedure, they opened up the artery by implanting a stent to clear the blockage, thereby avoiding the open heart by-pass surgery.

So, why am I telling my story? It’s simple really – I dodged a bullet that could have, and by all accounts should have, killed me. My condition probably took years to develop, and who knows how long I had been teetering on the edge of a 99 percent blockage. Facing your mortality is a very sobering and reflective time. You think about what might have happened, what could have happened, and then you think about your family. Going through this during the holidays was pretty rough – I’m not going to lie. The worst part is, it might have been preventable. I have no one to blame but myself.

A silent killer

With hindsight being 20/20, I set out to learn more about "the widow maker." The statistics were a bit shocking. If this heart attack had happened when I was outside the hospital, say in my office or on the road, my chance of survival would have been less than two percent. I'm telling my story because this could happen to you, a colleague, or a loved one – it can strike with little to no warning. I believe that executives in our position and the people who work for us need to know about this silent disease. We need to get the word out!

Let’s turn the page to current day. Now, I can happily say I’ve just finished a cardiac rehab program and have a much more informed sense of what I can take on in terms of exercise. Yet, the more I started reading about coronary artery disease, the more I realized that I had narrowly escaped something major. Because it takes years for a 99 percent blockage to form in the LAD, I am absolutely convinced that I set myself up for this event over my decades of travel, lack of sleep, late-night dinners, entertaining clients, and long hours at the office in my 20s and 30s. Not to mention the additional stress of managing a career as well as many direct reports and staff over the past 30 years.

Don't procrastinate

Like a lot of people out there (women especially), I waited a long time between feeling the symptoms and making an appointment to get checked out. For me, it was almost three months from the first sign of a possible issue. Why not procrastinate when you’re sure you can’t be out of commission? You have a job to do – surely, you can’t be bothered by taking care of yourself. Women wait far longer than men to act on symptoms of illness, statistically speaking.

And yet we shouldn’t wait. We should be taking better care of ourselves. Isn’t that what we tell our teams and the people we care about? The best thing you can do as a leader is to ensure that people are taking care of themselves. But it’s got to start with you. We need to lead by example – put yourself as a priority. If your job is stressful and your life hectic, and whose job isn’t both of those things, you need to find the time to do a few things this year with your doctor:

  1. Get your blood work done. This is the map that tells you whether you’re headed in a good or bad direction. Do you know whether your triglycerides are in a healthy range? Do you know what it means if they’re not?
  2. Get your blood pressure checked. Do you know whether you have hypertension (i.e. high blood pressure)? Do you know what this means? This is a risk factor for heart disease. You can reduce this naturally – but you need to work at it.
  3. Get your cholesterol checked. You may be able to reel off all your cloud providers without thinking twice, but do you know your cholesterol, both your HDL and your LDL? For that matter, has anyone in your direct family line had high cholesterol, or high blood pressure, or coronary artery disease? If yes, then you are at risk.
  4. Get a check-up, including a stress test and a coronary calcium CT scan. When was the last time you had one? What was your heart rate? What did your follow-up notes advise you to do? Are you following their advice?

If this topic seems a bit off-putting, I’m not surprised. It takes a lot of focus and dedication to become a CIO, VP, IT or IT Director. Issues like health and wellness don’t get talked about – they are just an inconvenience, an annoyance, right? That’s what I used to think, and that is why I’ve told you my story. I want you to go out and tell at least ten of your friends, colleagues, peers and/or family members my story, or maybe you know someone else who has had something similar happen to them. Tell them that story, people need to know.

So what are you waiting for?

Brian Beams joined Pharmavite in June 2010 and is responsible for determining the strategic direction of the company’s IT solutions, infrastructure and technology operations, as well as the company’s customer and consumer-facing technologies.

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