By the Rev. Brad Beeman | Pastor, Bellevue: Aldersgate UMC
I’ll never forget the day I got a personal call from my doctor asking me to come in as soon as possible, not words you want to hear. We set an appointment for the next day. As he entered the examination room, instead of having me sit on the exam table, he insisted that I sit beside him at the computer. He began to walk me through the results of my recent blood work. They were staggering, eye-opening, and, I have to admit, pretty terrifying.
At the time I was fifty-seven years old. I stand just over 5 foot 10, and I weighed almost 250 pounds. My standing heart rate was between 78 and 85, and my blood pressure was averaging 150 / 110. My cholesterol was 325 and my triglycerides were 527. My knees hurt, and I would get out of breath anytime I walked up a set of stairs. I was depressed, ashamed and didn’t know what to do. I even wore vests to try and hide my bulk. I didn’t want to admit that I was in trouble. I didn’t have time to admit it. But this doctor’s visit finally got my attention. “Brad,” he said, “if you don’t take this on, you’ll be dead within three to five years. I don’t want to have to attend your funeral.” He was serious. I decided to take it on.
I’m a United Methodist pastor and have been for twenty-six years. Like so many of us, the churches I’ve been serving have been in various levels of crisis or in various stages of rebuilding. More often than not, crisis or rebuilding creates conflict. And, for me at least, conflict creates deep levels of stress. In addition I was trying to balance local church duties with work on The Board of Ordained Ministry.
On the personal side, my wife and I had a very active high schooler at home, not to mention our other children and their challenges. I also have aging parents who struggle periodically with health issues. Couple all this with some unhealthy personal habits, such as eating steak, eggs, burgers, and fast food (it’s just so convenient), and it was the perfect recipe for disaster. I was trying to take a few days off a month. More often than not, I didn’t. I also had little or no prayer time, no time to meditate, and I certainly didn’t want to see a counselor. I would walk, sometimes get on my bike, and once in a great while go for a run. That was my life. I’m aware that my story is not unlike many of us with one potential exception.
Almost two years ago I suffered what had originally been diagnosed as a brain aneurism. It was one of the most intense headaches I’ve ever experienced. It caused me to completely lose my equilibrium and nearly pass out. After much testing, doctors ruled out both an aneurism and a stroke.
Over the next few months the episodes got more consistent and more intense until finally, just before Christmas (note the timing) I had an episode in the church parking lot. The parking lot began to spin. I went down on both knees and after almost ten minutes, still feeling the effects, literally crawled back into the church office. Our office manager saw me and was preparing to administer CPR or, if needed, utilize the AED. But then, as in previous episodes, the symptoms began to diminish and finally disappear.
After more testing, it was discovered that I have what’s called vasovagal syncope. Triggered by acute stress, the heart rate and blood pressure become elevated until the body collapses in a faint in order to reestablish lower blood pressure levels. High levels of stress, combined with my already elevated blood pressure, terrible self care, a really lousy diet, and almost no serious exercise had created a disorder that called for immediate action.
The challenge is that my story is not dissimilar to all too many clergy in the United States. We are among the most unhealthy of all professionals. So, after hearing from my doctor, I chose to change. It was one of the toughest, most important things I’ve ever done.
Today, three years later, my standing heart rate averages about 64 beats per minute. I’ve lost over forty pounds. My average blood pressure is now 128/72. My cholesterol is 192 and my triglycerides have been cut by 67%. I have not had an episode in almost a year, but I will have the vagal nerve disorder for the rest of my life.
What changed? I took my doctor’s advice. I began to look for resources to help. I met with Daniel Flahiff, a member of Aldersgate, my current pastoral appointment. He became my coach. Daniel is a certified personal trainer who represented the U.S. in an international triathlon competition in New Zealand. He coaches athletes in the greater Seattle area. He set me up with a physical work-out regimen. That was step one. I then began to build a multi-faceted program for health. I developed a circle of medical and mental health support and accountability and am now training for my first triathlon.
Change is hard. We all know it. But the results are worth it. At my last doctor’s appointment the same doctor who told me that I’d be dead in three to five years is now able to say that I’ve extended my life by decades. I know you’re wondering about the specifics regarding how all of this was accomplished. I can tell you this; I certainly didn’t do it alone, and there was no magic solution. The details will come in a follow-up article next month. But the first step, much like my doctor appointment, comes from first establishing a baseline. From there priorities and goals can be set.
A survey for clergy health will be released soon. Please watch for it. Please, brothers and sisters in ministry, take it on and let’s see ourselves in this challenge together toward greater health.