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Accepting Osteoporosis

Finally recognizing the problem was a step forward in her self-improvement.

Self-improvement: Mother accepts osteoporosis

The woman on the phone said she was a nurse. “Ms. Barber, I’m calling from your HMO. I just wanted to let you know we’re writing a prescrip­tion for you—it’s a bone-restoration medication. Your scan results show that you have osteoporosis.”

Clunk. I dropped my laundry basket, heavy with one more load before our vacation to Colorado. “Osteoporosis?” I sputtered. She must have the wrong Karen Barber. No way I could have osteoporosis! I was young—well, not old, anyway—the picture of health.

The nurse, apparently unaware that this was the first I’d heard the news, launched into an explanation of how to take the pills. “In the morning, on an empty stomach…” Her voice faded in my mind. Osteoporosis?

Yes, I’d had a bone-density scan a month before, but only because my general practitioner insisted—something about standard procedure after menopause. But osteoporosis? That was an old person’s disease, right? I power walked two and a half miles each day!

The only reason I’d even been in the doctor’s office was to get checked out for an upcoming mission trip to Honduras. Frail old people did not take mission trips to Honduras. Surely there was a mistake.

The nurse, however, referred to the exact date I’d had my scan. She asked if I had any questions. Too stunned to think, I mumbled no and hung up. I stared at the laundry, piled high in the basket.

Every year my husband, Gordon, our three boys and our daughter-in-law spent a week at a cabin in the Colorado mountains. Everyone else skied—I didn’t know how—and I took long walks on the mountain roads. What did this mean, osteoporosis? That I was too frail for trips like that?

Come on, I was only 54. Gordon and I had so many plans now that our youngest was about to leave for college. I exercised every morning—walking and praying—drank plenty of milk, ate yogurt, took calcium supplements. I hadn’t broken a bone since I was five years old. Not fair, God. I’m too young for this!

A few days later we left for Colorado. I didn’t fill the prescription and barely mentioned the nurse’s call to Gordon. No sense worrying him, especially if this all turned out to be a big mistake.

Besides, the nurse had said something about stomach upset as a possible side effect. I certainly didn’t want that on vacation. I tried to put the whole thing out of my mind.

At the cabin, though, I found myself feeling irrationally fearful. I had toyed with the idea of taking skiing lessons and joining the others on the slopes. What if I fell? Would my bones snap? Well, I could at least try some sledding. I looked at my boots by the door.

Fear surged again and for a moment the entire outdoors loomed like an endless danger zone, a world of potential falls and bone breaks. I flopped down on the sofa and turned on the TV. A single phone call had accomplished what 54 years of life had not. Suddenly I felt old.

Well, I thought when we got back home, I am not dealing with this now. Each day I found a new excuse not to go to the pharmacy. When I ran out of excuses, I decided to confront my doctor.

I would tell him about my healthy active lifestyle and he would say, “Of course, Ms. Barber, you don’t need medication. There must have been some mistake.”

The doctor listened then fixed me with a patient but pointed look. “Ms. Barber, there’s no other way to put it. You have osteoporosis.” He drew a picture: two circles, one filled with dense, crosshatched lines, the other with just a few lines.

“These are normal bones,” he said, pointing to the full circle. “Lots of bone mass here, which in a young woman’s body is constantly being replenished. After menopause, though, estrogen levels go down and the body stops replacing bone mass so reliably.” He tapped the other circle.

“But, I’m young!” I protested. “I take calcium pills.”

“Osteoporosis affects women of all ages,” he replied, “even some men. And the fact is, people who have it need supplementation to help their bodies absorb calcium. Often you can’t replace bone mass you’ve lost. But you can keep what remains—if you take the medication.”

Dejected, I dragged myself to the pharmacy. The crowning insult came with the pharmacist’s instructions. I would have to take the pill first thing in the morning on an empty stomach, then eat nothing and remain upright for half an hour. What did that mean? No breakfast? Could I still take my walks? I was becoming an old lady tethered to her pills!

The next morning I woke up and looked in the medicine cabinet. The orange pill bottle stared back at me. I had spent the previous evening poring over the instruction sheet and looking up the medication online.

Lots of unpleasant side effects, especially the stomach upset. I had a meeting at church. Best not to risk feeling sick. I’ll start tomorrow, I thought, and closed the cabinet.

The next day was the same, and the day after that. Always some reason to postpone. The pills greeted me each morning, silent ambassadors from the land of old age. I’d stare at them, waver and close the cabinet.

One misty spring morning, I left the house for my 6:00 a.m. walk. I liked to pray on these walks, a different kind of prayer on each section. I glided through our woodsy backyard, smelling the damp earth.

I crossed a bridge over a creek and climbed a hill past some tennis courts to the road. The road was where I switched to thankfulness prayers—not asking God for anything, just thanking him for what I already had, and the blessings I knew I would continue to receive. I thanked him for Gordon, for the boys, our house, the beautiful morning.

And, suddenly, without quite realizing it, I found myself thanking him for those osteoporosis pills. The pills?! Yes, the pills. My prayer rolled on. Thank you, God, for my doctor watching over me so wisely. For the scan machine that found this problem with my bones. And for supplying a way to fix it. You take such good care of me.

The mist was lifting, the sun just illuminating the road with soft, daffodil-colored light. I felt a warmth inside of me too, some small but profound shift. All this time I had been regarding these pills as my enemy, an unfair, unwanted sign of advancing age, of mortality, of lost youth.

But that’s not what they were at all. They were a gift, a life-giving gift. I didn’t need to fear them. I knew I should be grateful for them. Indeed, just thinking of them that way—as something to be thankful for—drove out my fear.

I wasn’t afraid of the pills, I realized. I was afraid of growing old. I was in denial of the most basic plan God had laid out for us, of a journey that began and ended with him.

The mist disappeared and the sun shone on me brightly. I finished the walk, entered the house and made straight for the medicine cabinet.

Today, nearly a year later, I take my medication regularly, and have suffered not a single side effect. Gordon and I recently got back from a European cruise—our empty-nester dividend.

Am I old? I think about that question differently now. God knows the number of my years. And he’s giving me what I need to make the most of them. Just like he always has.

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