Wednesday, October 12th, 2016
Last week blogger and social influencer Rosemary MacCabe visited Charter Medical to experience our Women’s Executive Health Screen.
There’s a certain moment in every woman’s life when you realise that you’re not going to be a teenager forever. So far so obvious, right? For me, I get a little jolt of it every single time I channel my mother, by saying something like, “that’s a very Protestant name” or “sure, when you’re up, you’re up”.
But the clearest example of this came last year, when I was given two disturbing pieces of news: the first, when I had my fertility levels checked, and discovered that – and I quote – if I want to have children, “you’d better start trying now”. The second was that my cholesterol levels are disturbingly high “for a woman of your age”. Cheers to the freaking weekend (I’ll drink to that).
A year later, when Charter Medical approached me and asked if I’d like to come into their Smithfield practice and undergo their Women’s Executive Health Screen, I was intrigued to see what would show up. Would six months of healthy eating, and a year of non-smoking (I quit the day I got the bad news about my fertility, figuring there are some things I can control, and this life-ending habit was one of them) have turned my fortunes around completely?
The Executive Health Screen was developed by the bods at Charter Medical to go through absolutely everything that may be concerning you. It’s an early warning system – if there are any problems, it’s better to know now – but it’s also a totally relaxed environment that enables you to discuss any and all of your concerns, go through what’s coming down the road (maybe you’re approaching menopause; perhaps you’re trying to get pregnant); and evaluate all of your body’s strong and weak points. The real draw? You can do all this – unlike with your GP – without listening to the queue of 15 adults and 23 kids just outside the door.
Let’s get one thing out of the way early, shall we? At €495, the Executive Health Screen isn’t cheap – but then again, why would it be? It’s a full spectrum health check that takes two and a half hours and involves a series of tests, from hormone levels to vitamin and mineral levels and fasting blood sugars; a physical examination; an ECG and a test for lung function; as well as optional tests such as a cervical smear; Dexa scan (which examines bone density); stool analysis; menopause advice; nutritional assessment… The list goes on.
My Executive Health Screen starts with Lovely Nurse; I’ve been fasting for 12 hours, so we begin by taking my blood pressure and chatting through some family history (I’m surprised confessing about the latter didn’t influence the former: “Well, my Dad’s got high cholesterol and arthritis, and refuses to exercise…”). Then it’s time to take bloods. I’m not a nervous blood-giver, but when I tell Lovely Nurse that I fainted the last time I donated at the Irish Blood Transfusion Service on D’Olier St (what? I hadn’t eaten a lot that day), she tells me to lie down while my bloods are taken, and we chat away as she drains me dry. Okay, slight exaggeration – but having bloods taken always reminds me of the Factory in Buffy… I DIGRESS!
Next up, it’s my lung function exam – and honestly? This is the one I was most apprehensive about. I had asthma as a child, and even though I barely even wheeze any more and I don’t use an inhaler, I was convinced that years of wheezing (and making excuses to avoid sports day) had left me with feeble little air bags that barely function as lungs. Er… Incorrect. My lungs actually function better than one would expect from someone my age. Apparently asthmatics often have slightly bigger lungs, because of all of that hard work they’re doing; they just don’t always function better because they’re full of asthma. So in effect, my years as an asthmatic have perfectly equipped me for, er, winning competitions where you see who can hold their breath for longest. I think.
Moving on! Once I have my bloods and lung function tested, it’s off into another room for an ECG. If you’ve never had an ECG, it’s just like in the movies; they attach a load of sticky pads to your body, and then all of these wires get attached to the sticky pads and then you breathe in and out a few times and a machine makes little designs that indicate how your heart is working. Except, in the movies, my stomach would have been flatter and I would’ve chosen to wear a better bra.
Next, Lovely Nurse gets me a cup of coffee; I’ve been fasting for 12 hours, and not only am I starving (what is it about the word “fast” that just makes me feel so hungry? When I was in school, I could never complete the Concern 24-hour fast because I always folded after about six hours) but I have one of those irritating headaches I get when I’m not siphoning coffee into my body at a rate of knots.
Coffee in hand, I’m ready to meet Dr Juliet Bressan for my physical examination, to chat through my history, any concerns, to talk about prescriptions, and for a long and detailed conversation about feminism, why more men than women come in for the Executive Health Screen (Dr Bressan reckons it’s because women are busy looking after everyone else first), how women become invisible after the age of 40 and how I suspect men talk to me differently since I cut my hair and am now no longer in the “women to be sexualised” box. (Theory based on anecdotal evidence.)
Juliet (I can call her that because we’re BFFs now) is like my dream doctor – what my GP would be like if she didn’t have 500 people to deal with every single day. I go through my every tiny concern, from the little bony bump that’s appeared on my wrist since I lost weight (an osteophyte, apparently) to the ingrown hair in my armpit that drives me absolutely bonkers (best to leave it, is the conclusion, unless it starts to hurt or gets infected) to the fact that my BMI is still an “unhealthy” 28 (Juliet seems to think there’d be no harm trying to reduce it, but points out that it’s not an exact science, and if I look and feel healthy, there’s no point worrying too much about it).
We talk about my contraception choices, and whether or not I should get rid of my copper coil (I’ve decided to give it a few more weeks, and reevaluate after my next cycle). Juliet asks how I’m getting on with my anti-depressants, how long I’ve been on them and whether I notice any side effects. She examines my breasts, and chastises me (very nicely) for neglecting to do my regular self checks (apparently it’s not enough to rub shower gel into them and hope you’d notice something dodge). She listens to my breathing, examines my thyroid and palpates my tummy to see if anything seems awry (it doesn’t).
Finally, we say our goodbyes – isn’t it weird when you meet someone, especially in a work capacity, who you wish you’d met in a different capacity and could become friends with, but know you’ll probably never see them again? – and I head downstairs for my Dexa scan. This is designed to show bone density, so it is particularly relevant for post-menopausal women who may be prone to osteoarthritis and osteoporosis.
I thought it was going to be like a fun scan where I go into the tunnel (I watch too much TV), but in fact I lie back on a table in my hospital gown, and this little scanner machine thing moves over me and scans my hips and pelvis. It takes about five minutes and off I go on my merry way.
My Executive Health Screen took place on a Thursday, and on the following Wednesday I get a call from Juliet to chat through my results – and the news is both good and, if not bad, then a little disappointing.
First things first? Everything is fine; nothing major has shown up, and there are no huge causes for concern. But the two things I was concerned about – my AMH levels (for fertility) and my cholesterol – are still off. Now, my AMH was never going to go up, but it’s gone down, so that I no longer have the egg store of a 40-year-old woman, but that of a 45-year-old. And my cholesterol, despite eating a much improved diet, is still high.
There is nothing to be done about my AMH levels, although I should say that it is not a definite conclusion; lots of women with low AMH levels conceive with no issues, while those with high AMH levels may have difficulties. The thing is, I don’t think I want to have children (although I may change my mind, just like I did with coffee and Brussels sprouts), so there’s no point in being overly concerned about it right now, at a time when neither I nor my boyfriend are considering reproducing. As for cholesterol, Juliet suggests lowering my intake of saturated fats (so, no rashers, sausages, butter or cheese – this alone is proof that there is no God) and getting tested again in six months to see if diet has had an impact, and to decide what next steps should be taken.
The full breakdown of my test results is sent out to me in the post, for me to peruse, misunderstand, and Google myself into the grave with – but, more importantly, for me to give to my own GP, as a way of better understanding my medical needs in the months and years to come.
I won’t lie; in a way, I feel mildly let down, in a really, really stupid way… This is a huge series of tests I took, and I expected, at the very least, to find out that I had something wrong with me! Maybe a vitamin deficiency that I can rectify with supplements. (I mean, the dream conclusion is that I am deficient in some mineral directly linked to the body’s ability to lose weight, and that correcting that deficiency would solve all of my life’s problems but, sadly, it was not to be.)
But I firmly believe that you’re far better to know what’s going on with your body than to bury your head in the sand. If, for example, I did want to have children, confirmation of my low AMH levels would give me a great starting off point for a discussion with my partner and a plan of action for our future. And knowing that my Dad has high cholesterol has made me really determined to stop bringing home the bacon (literally) and to try to improve my medical outlook.
There’s no surefire way of guarding against illness, and there are no guarantees when it comes to the future – but knowledge is power, and the more you know about your own body, the better equipped you are to take steps to safeguard that future.
Want to win your own Executive Health Screen? Keep an eye on my Instagram for a competition that will go live later today.