Applying lessons from flying to your health

The concepts and way of thinking acquired by aviators are germane to so much of life. Let me give you some examples. 

1. Avoid the hazardous attitude of invulnerability: The first lesson is relevant to my recent article, “A test that could save your life,” where I wrote about colon cancer and the value of colonoscopy screenings. Did any of you act upon it? One of my oldest friends did not listen to advice to get a screening, developed colorectal cancer, and died from it. This week was the fifth anniversary of his passing. He was 50. Here is the ridiculous part of this story: He was a doctor. Not just any doctor, a colorectal cancer surgeon.

I am sure I was not the only person who talked to him about this, but—and here’s the link to flying—he did not think it could happen to him. He displayed the hazardous attitude of invulnerability, just like the guy I remember reading about in AOPA Pilot a couple of years ago who beat thunderstorms twice. That pilot destroyed two airplanes, but his conclusion was that thunderstorms were not as dangerous as everyone suggested. He paid the ultimate price the third time he picked a fight with a cumulonimbus. So please, in honor of the friend I could not save, have a colonoscopy and stay the heck away from thunderheads. 

2. Always continue to learn: Every time I take a checkride or fly with another pilot, I view it as a learning opportunity. Sometimes it is simple as, “On a cold day, clamp your headphones over your thigh as you are setting up the cockpit to warm them up.” Sometimes it is more complex, like a cool way to utilize the Garmin 430s in my airplane; after nearly 10 years I am still learning things about the airplane that has safely carried me all over these United States and points north and south.   

Recently I met up with a medical school buddy, a big bear of a guy whom I would be thrilled to have as my family doctor. I always admired “Big Jon” as we called him: knowledgeable, affable, and understated. I had taken his twitchy eye to be a symptom of middle-age stress. How wrong could I be. The tensing of the facial muscles around the eye is known as blepharospasm and can cause almost constant pain for the sufferer. When I saw Jon at a reunion of the guys I went through medical school with, he told me he was about to undergo a major neurosurgical procedure because the reason his muscles were convulsing was that an artery underneath his brain was hitting his nerve every time the artery beat. Skilled surgeons placed a small wedge between the two structures, and “Big Jon” is now pain free for the first time in years. I'm grateful that he continued the quest for wisdom and got the problem solved.

3. Look for early signs of trouble: I am lucky to have a fabulous mechanic. Martin is professional, accessible, and gives sage advice. Just as I attempt to stay ahead of the airplane when my hand is on the stick, he does the same when it is sticking around him. For instance, he noted some exhaust staining on the inside of the cowling when it was there for a routine oil change, and his diligent exploration revealed a hairline crack in the manifold. This was just before I had a long trip to southern climes. It was an expensive oil change, but the alternative could have been much worse.

I was at a medical conference recently, and one talk was about the diabetes epidemic. In 2012, 29.1 million Americans had diabetes, and 86 million had prediabetes. That is roughly one third of the population. These numbers are growing every year, like the waistline of our people. What does diabetes mean to you? Blindness, skin ulcers, kidney failure, nerve pain, heart attacks, stroke, impotence, amputations, early death. Got your attention? Here’s the link to aviation: We are effectively waiting for the manifold to crack, for compression to drop precipitously at 1,000 feet agl in instrument meteorological conditions during a missed approach. Unthinkable, right? So take a leaf out of Martin’s book, and look for the early signs such as a spreading waistline rather than waiting for that precipitous drop.

So now can you see how these lessons from aviation can apply to your health? Flying skills really do prepare us for many things.

Jonathan Sackier
Dr. Jonathan Sackier is an expert in aviation medical concerns and helps members with their needs through AOPA Pilot Protection Services.
Topics: Pilot Protection Services, AOPA Products and Services, Events

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