Hey, I thought exercise was supposed to be good for you. That’s the message we see everywhere, in newspapers, in magazines, on Facebook, in blogs, on TV, in conversations with our doctors, all those folks that work at the “Y.” You can’t turn around without one of those, “You need to exercise!” messages staring you right in the eye.
They all tell us that exercise is great; it helps prevent high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, builds stronger bones and is good for weight control. There are folks who would have us believe it can also reduce the effects of aging, like memory loss. And I, too, am guilty because I’ve shared several stories about hiking, and I spend a lot of time walking. I walk because my doctors tell me it will make my life better, and perhaps I’ll live longer, but in reality I walk because it makes me feel good, both mentally and physically. I almost always feel better at the end of a hike than at the beginning, but not on June 6, 2018.
June 6, 2018, is a day I will never ever forget. I headed out for a three-mile hike, walking to visit a neighbor that lives one and a half miles down the road. This three-mile round trip is a perfect way to end the day. I walked to my friend’s house to deliver some photos we’d made of his grandchildren. He wasn’t there so I left the photos and started back home. The exercise was causing my body to feel energized and there were many wild flowers on the roadside to enjoy on my walk home. There were a lot of day lilies and a couple of wildflowers I couldn’t identify on both sides of the road. Plus, there is an ancient wall left over from an old grist mill from many decades back. It’s fun to see this old stacked-rock dam because it’s mostly intact and huge; probably eight-feet high and about 40- to 50-feet long.
There is a wildflower on the other side of the road I could not identify and walked over to take a look. Bending down to closely examine the plant, suddenly my eyes refuse to focus. Standing up quickly and trying to look around me, I realize something is wrong with my vision. Panicking as the world spins out of control, I lean heavily on my hiking pole to steady myself and not fall out into the road; this is a long stretch of rural road with no house in sight. I think “Sit down,” but reconsider because my balance is so bad I cannot negotiate the ditch. I try to phone my friend where the photos were left. This is not easy because my vision and coordination are nearly nonexistent. It takes a while but I find his number and press the single button; no answer. Next I try to call my wife Connie even though I know she’s shopping. Again I struggle, but finally manage to press the correct button; another voice mail.
Concerned that this might be a stroke, I try some “tests for stroke” exercises I read about. I hold my arms over my head, stick my tongue out, and then start talking loudly to see if my speech is OK. When I hold my hands out and over my head, my balance shifts wildly to my left, but my arms seem to work OK. My tongue and speech seem alright. I am hoping desperately that no one drives by and sees me talking to myself, sticking my tongue out and my arms up in the air while stumbling and staggering. And, when I go for a walk, even in summer, I cover up completely including a big floppy hat to prevent skin problems. Once, one of our neighbors thought I was a street person and called her husband and told him that a beggar was in the neighborhood. So really, would anybody believe I am not a crazy, drunken old fool?
Panicking, I decided there’s only one thing to do, walk toward home, a mile away and hope someone will drive by that recognizes me. Stumbling badly and staggering with the world spinning wildly from right to left, my feet do not go where I want them. Stumbling, nearly falling repeatedly and leaning heavily on my hiking pole my progress is extremely slow. My appearance is surely that of a crazy drunken old man, would anybody stop to help such a person?
Suddenly I remembered a conversation with a friend, and I know what’s wrong. He told me a story about an episode he had with Acute Vertigo, an inner ear problem that produces symptoms like these. Somewhat relieved I stumbled on until I heard a lawn mower. Finally after about 15 minutes of stumbling and panicking, I see a neighbor mowing his yard. Now keep in mind, I’m a little incoherent and appear drunk but bless him, after some confusing explanation of my problem he took me home.
Climbing the same steps to my front porch that I’ve climbed hundreds of times feels like an ascent of Pike’s Peak. But finally I reached the top and I sat on a low table and waited for Connie. I kept my eyes closed and my head between my knees trying keep the world still, but it didn’t work. Suddenly everything in my digestive track wants to come out and I started throwing up and continue to do so for about 15 minutes. Eventually Connie arrived and whisked me off to the emergency room in Clemmons. They tested me, and pumped me full drugs to stop the earth from spinning and end my panic. They sent me home with instructions not to hike for a couple of days and a prescription to control Acute Vertigo. My dizziness continued, though much abated, for about 36 hours.
I told my eldest grandson about this experience and he suggested I try a different exercise. “What kind of exercise do you suggest?” I ask. He replied, “At your age, just sit on the sofa and watch Netflix, and perhaps you can stay out of trouble.” Suddenly I can’t remember why I used to like this kid so much.
Rod Hunter lives in East Bend and is an avid hiker, biker, photographer and nature lover. He is the past state chairman of the Sierra Club of NC. He volunteers as a court-appointed children’s advocate for children in foster care and with Cancer Services Inc. He is a two-time cancer survivor. He has backpacked in Alaska, Arizona, California, Utah, Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Georgia, Virginia, and of course North Carolina.