Chronic disease, thankfully, is something of which I have little personal knowledge.
Of course, I know people who are dealing with diabetes or cancer or arthritis. But I don't know what it is like to be on regular medication or having to deal with pain. I don't know what it's like to live with a condition for which there may never be a cure.
Beyond a cold or two each year, my biggest health concern recently has been working my way down to a healthy weight. Now that I'm getting close to my goal, and progress is much harder to come by, I'm looking for ways to keep myself focused and motivated.
Which is how I found myself enrolled in a six-week workshop called Personal Action Toward Health.
Organized locally through the U.P. Diabetes Outreach Network, the PATH program is a free workshop held nationally, written by researchers from Stanford University. It is designed to help those who have chronic health conditions, or those who are caretakers for someone with a health condition, take steps to managing their own health issues.
Although there are classes held in Marquette, the one I attended was held at Bell Hospital in Ishpeming, making it much more convenient to make it to the meetings. The people at UPDON invited me to take part in the workshop, based on some health articles I wrote over the summer and a previous column I wrote about my own weight loss journey.
The first evening of the class, I showed up, not really knowing what to expect. I found myself in a room with around 10 other people, all of whom are living with conditions ranging from diabetes to cancer to asthma to arthritis. Some, like me, also shared concerns about their weight.
Our two workshop leaders, who both happen to work in health care-related fields, were also dealing with chronic conditions and had themselves participated in previous PATH workshops.
That first night, one of the first things we did as a group was to share which conditions and health issues we each were facing - which left me, for a moment, questioning why I was there. I felt out of place, simply because I didn't have, what seemed to me, as "critical" a health problem.
Then we shared the symptoms of our conditions, and I heard things like fatigue, frustration, low feeling of self-worth - all things I had felt before I started losing weight. Whether symptoms included pain, difficulty breathing, depression or difficulty moving, someone else sitting around the table shared that symptom, no matter what their condition was. The aim of the exercise being to show us that we weren't alone.
Each week we learned about healthy eating, exercise, even tips for managing pain. We learned how to better communicate with family and friends. Also included was a discussion on how to talk to your doctor, from making sure you communicate your concerns to them to knowing how to ask for more information.
One of the most important parts of the workshop that was carried through the entire six weeks was the creation of an action plan each week. An action plan is a goal you want to meet each week of the program. It has to be something specific, not just "I want to exercise more." An action plan reads more like "I will go for a half-hour walk on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening after dinner." You say exactly what you want to do, when you will do it and how long it should take you.
It's not just knowing how to set a reachable goal, but also it's about being accountable. I wanted to meet my goals each week, not just because they helped me, but because the rest of the group was waiting to hear how I did.
Making those goals, particularly for the short term, will be one of the tools I will make it a point to use in the future. But the information on how to talk with your doctor is also something I intend to put to use.
Even if I wasn't sure about my place in the workshop in the beginning, I'm glad I was able to participate.
UPDON provides PATH workshops regularly, with the next to be scheduled in the late winter or early spring. For more information on the program, contact UPDON at 906-228-9203.
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.