Fifty is My New Sixty

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I recently turned 50. In other words, I am FIFTY; the BIG FIVE-0; the age when there are MORE YESTERDAYS THAN TOMORROWS! To mark this milestone of my dance with mortality, I went for a physical. Since I lap-swim and watch my diet, I was sure to ace it.

After taking my blood pressure, administering an EKG, drawing a blood sample and poking me all over, my doctor, Craig Warschauer, gave me his verdict: “Your EKG is abnormal.”

“What?” I shouted.

“It’s probably a normal variation,” Dr. Warschauer said.

After all my backstroking and low-fat, low-taste eating, I deserved better than an abnormal EKG. I deserved the squiggly lines on the graph to look like the medical equivalent of a Picasso. I deserved the same EKG that I imagine Michael Phelps has.

But Dr. Warschauer, a short, energetic man, who also recently turned 50, wasn’t concerned. “Any recommendation I make will be based on your blood work. My assistant Stephanie will call you with the results.”

For two days my heart beat like a Congo-drum whenever my phone rang. Finally, Stephanie called.

“Everything is fine,” her voice said on my answering machine. “Except”—except? What do you mean EXCEPT?—“you have a slightly elevated kidney reading. Please call me.”

I dialed her number so quickly I nearly dislocated my index finger. Stephanie told me that my creatine level was high and that Dr. Warschauer was referring me to a nephrologist.

Normal variation, creatine, nephrologist. Who knew that turning 50 would increase my vocabulary? While learning that I might have a kidney problem jolted me, I had abandoned my sense of physical infallibility 15 years ago, after being diagnosed with osteoarthritis in my left hip. I stopped jogging, started taking pain medication and learned to resist the temptation to run across the street to beat oncoming cars.

Most of the time the pain is negligible, but some days it is difficult to get around. Having a disease associated with the elderly made me realize that my body could fail me, well before most people are made to face the reality of aging. Although I take solace in knowing that I can get a new hip, kidneys are not so easily replaced. So it was with some trepidation that I went to see Dr. Jon Wang.

Dr. Wang was a cheerful sixty-something man, who spoke with a slight Asian accent. “Your overall health is good,” he said after examining me. “Still, your kidney function is slightly below normal for your age.”

But one blood test is not conclusive. We’ll test you again and if the result is the same, it would confirm that you have CKD, chronic kidney disease.”

I could deal with my CS (chronic sinusitis) and my CMC (chronic morning crankiness), but CKD had a foreboding ring to it. Dr. Wang said that if I have CKD, it’s likely caused by my pain medication, and that cutting the dosage could resolve the problem.

He took a blood sample and told me to come back in three months. I left his office feeling that my medical issues were very manageable.

That evening I had dinner with my friend Rob, who turns 50 in February. Despite ignoring all dietary and exercise guidelines Rob has always enjoyed perfect health—an injustice that has long rankled me. I told him about my kidneys and he told me about a recent check up. “My cholesterol is 230 and my doctor wants me to go on medication!” Rob said, making me feel as though I were not a day over 49.

Ben Krull is a lawyer and essayist who lives on the Upper East Side.

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