Physician, Heal Thyself

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Ever wondered whether doctors practice what they preach? We asked five local doctors, each representing different specialties, to share their personal prescriptions for self-care. Here’s the scoop.

John Chuck, M.D., primary care physician, Kaiser Permanente, Davis
John Chuck, M.D., believes in a mind-body-spirit approach to wellness, and always tries to walk the walk. “I think I have more credibility as a physician if I’m modeling the advice I give,” says the 49-year-old (though he doesn’t look it) Chuck. On his list of tips: Don’t spend money you don’t have. “I actually think that overstressing yourself financially is one of the greatest causes of stress in our society,” he says. “I believe investing time in relationships is much more important.”

It’s just one of his guiding principles, says Chuck, who also follows the rules below for healthy living.

Fresh foods and a balanced diet. Fresh, home-cooked foods rule in the Chuck household, where a box of organic fruits and vegetables are delivered every week. “We try to cook all our own food, and we eat out as little as possible,” Chuck says. Breakfast is usually a bowl of high-fiber, low-sugar cereal, topped by fresh fruit and low-fat milk; for lunch, it’s often leftovers and maybe a light yogurt. Chuck also grazes throughout the day, usually on fruits and veggies. Sweet treats are rare, but he doesn’t deny himself. “I absolutely eat birthday cake and absolutely eat ice cream,” says Chuck. “But it’s more an exception than a rule.” His weakness? Potato chips. “If they were healthy for me, I’d eat ’em every day.”

Regular exercise. You should only choose exercise you enjoy, believes Chuck, “because if you don’t enjoy it you won’t sustain it.” For Chuck, that means riding his bike around Davis or walking his dog at least four days a week for 45 minutes or more. “I love to walk my dog, and my dog loves to be walked,” he says. When he golfs, he gets extra exercise by walking instead of using a cart.

Sets limits. Stress is a killer, and Chuck tries to manage his by setting limits. “I try to set limits for what I can do—physically, mentally, emotionally,” he says. “I try not to overcommit myself.” Chuck says he sees firsthand what stress and overwork does to people, and it isn’t pretty. “I can’t tell you how many patients I see who tell me they’re so overwhelmed with work, with their relationships and with money problems that they feel they need to be medicated.”

Keeps cholesterol in check. Sometimes, no matter how well we take care of ourselves, genetics win. Such was the case with Chuck’s high cholesterol. “I’m genetically predisposed,” he says. “Diet and exercise wasn’t enough.” To keep his numbers at acceptable levels, Chuck follows doctor’s orders and takes cholesterol-fighting meds.
Isn’t his own doctor. Chuck thinks it’s important for people to know that even doctors need doctors. “As a physician, I need to partner with another physician,” he says. “It’s hard to be objective about your own health.”

Suzanne Kilmer, M.D., dermatologist and director of the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of Northern California, Sacramento
Like a walking advertisement for the services offered at her Laser & Skin Surgery Center, Suzanne Kilmer, M.D., freely admits she’s done a bunch of cosmetic treatments—Botox, Thermage, Fraxel, fillers—to keep her 51-year-old skin looking young. “I never want to do a big-deal procedure, like a face-lift,” she says. Then, after a pause: “Well, I should never say never. But I’d rather not.”

Here’s how she’s avoided the knife—so far.

Clarisonic brush. Kilmer swears by her Clarisonic brush, a small handheld device with a round oscillating head, which she uses on her face every morning in the shower. “The Clarisonic shrinks your pores and keeps them really clean, and also helps to aid penetration for other products you apply,” Kilmer says. Her cleanser of choice? A glycolic/salicylic acid complex, which helps to exfoliate and keep skin smooth. Post-shower, Kilmer applies an antioxidant-powered DNA repair cream, followed by topical Vitamin C. Antioxidants, including C, are said to fight free radicals along with wrinkles, fine lines and sun damage.

Retinol with green tea. No, it’s not the kind of tea you sip: Nightly before bed, Kilmer applies a Retinol and green tea cream to her face, neck, chest and sometimes hands and forearms. “Green tea has antioxidant properties and it’s also an anti-inflammatory agent, so you can tolerate the Retinol better,” she says. Studies show that Retinol, a form of Vitamin A, stimulates collagen production, helping to combat wrinkles.

Lots of organics. Kilmer’s diet consists of “mostly organic food—lots of fish, fruits, veggies and whole grains.” Although she doesn’t know if her eating habits have anything to do with her clear complexion—“there’s no real data for that”—she figures it doesn’t hurt.

Cosmetic helpers. Kilmer relies on a triad of cosmetic helpers in an effort to turn back the clock: Fraxel, a laser “resurfacer” that helps to even skin tone and texture; Thermage, which uses radiofrequency to smooth and tighten the skin; and the big B—Botox. Kilmer says she injects the muscle immobilizer every three to four months in several spots—around the eyes to reduce crow’s feet, between the eyebrows, and around the mouth “to make the corners of my mouth turn up.” She also once used a hyaluronic acid filler to plump up nasolabial folds, marionette lines (from mouth to chin) and lips. The results, she says, are worth it. “I don’t think I look any older than I did at 35.”

Diane Sobkowicz, M.D., cardiologist at Auburn Cardiology Medical Associates and Sutter Health
Lean and trim, cardiologist Diane Sobkowicz, M.D., looks the very picture of someone who doesn’t need to worry about heart health. But her late father had a valve problem and so did a few cousins, sparking her interest in matters of the heart long before she became a doctor.

Fortunately, the 40-something Sobkowicz hasn’t experienced any heart problems herself—and by following these healthy practices, she hopes she never will.
Daily treadmill time. Sobkowicz grew up in New York, where walking was a way of life. “As a kid, I used to walk two miles a day,” she says. “I enjoy it.” But these days, she’s juggling her medical practice with raising 6-year-old twins and work with the American Heart Association, making it tough to find time to get out and walk. Instead she walks indoors, on a treadmill. “It’s my personal time—I get to watch TV—and it also helps with stress,” says Sobkowicz. She tries to log in at least 30–45 minutes a day, varying speeds and grades to use different muscles. “I tell my patients that everybody has a half hour somewhere in the day for exercise,” she says. “I just tell my boys, ‘Look, Mommy has to exercise to keep healthy.’ And then they give me my little 30 minutes.”

Healthy eating. Oatmeal for breakfast and a green salad for dinner, sometimes with chicken, is Sobkowicz’s usual diet. Lunch is usually leftovers, she says: The day of our interview, it was fettuccine alfredo with chicken. Her main rule is limiting her intake of sweets. “I’m really not much into sweets,” she says. “But I like chocolate cake with whipped cream, and I won’t deny myself that.” But that’s in the office, not at home: As a rule, she doesn’t keep sweets in the house. She’s also mindful of portions and stopping when she’s full. “I’ll ask myself, ‘Do I really want this? Am I full or am I just eating it because it’s on my plate?’”

Appropriate testing. Because of her family history of heart valve disease, Sobkowicz checked herself out with an echocardiogram, which creates a moving picture of the heart including its valves and chambers. Luckily for her, the test came back clear. She’s also lucky in another regard: Low cholesterol runs in the family. “It’s so low that I don’t even have it regularly checked,” she admits. “I’m fortunate.”

Peter Skaff, M.D., neurologist with Mercy Medical Group and staff neurologist at Mercy San Juan Hospital, Carmichael
Ask a neurologist what he does to maintain brain health, and you’d think he might mention crossword puzzles (known to help prevent memory loss) or ramping up on omega 3 fatty acids, which play a crucial role in brain function. But Skaff takes a more broad-based approach. “The things I do for brain health are the same things I do for my overall health,” he says. “A lot of brain health depends on health in the rest of the body, especially vascular health.” To that end, he says, the golden rules apply: Keep your cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar low, and don’t smoke.

By following those basic tenets himself, Skaff, 41, hopes to stave off neurological disease—and all other disease, thank you very much—down the road. Aerobic exercise, known to keep both body and brain in shape, is also a big part of his personal regimen.

Karate kid. Skaff recently earned his first-degree black belt in karate, which he finds a “great physical and mental challenge. It tests you on both levels.” The brain-boosting benefits of physical exercise, he says, are obvious. “After a 45-minute workout, I feel alert and enjoy greater mental clarity,” says Skaff, who also swims, skis and hikes. He doesn’t always feel like going to the dojo after a long day at the hospital, he admits. “But I always feel better afterward.”

Balanced diet. No gingko biloba or ginseng for him: The only supplement Skaff takes is a basic multivitamin. “I’m an advocate of the balanced diet,” he says. “I don’t have any specific belief in a ‘brain diet.’” Skaff keeps it simple: He eats three well-balanced meals a day and maintains a healthy body weight.

Gets his zzzzzzs. Adequate sleep is essential to proper brain function. But when you’re a doctor on call, which Skaff typically is for a week out of every month, it’s hard to get your zzzzzzs. “That’s probably the most common challenge for me—getting adequate sleep,” he says. Fragmented sleep when he’s on call is sometimes inevitable, but he does his best to get six to seven hours of shut-eye a night. When he needs to recharge, Skaff shuts his office door and takes five to 10 minutes out for “quiet contemplation.”

Plays music. About once a week, Skaff pulls out his guitar and joins a couple of other friends for a casual jam session. “It’s fun, and I also think music is stimulating to the brain,” he says. Research seems to agree: Music therapy has been shown to be a useful tool with dementia patients, helping them to tap into old songs and memories. And music’s role as a mnemonic device memory tool is long-standing: Just think of the “alphabet song” used to teach ABCs.

Drinks in moderation. Another of Skaff’s hobbies is brewing beer, which may seem counterintuitive if you consider that alcohol kills brain cells. But again, he returns to the “all things in moderation” argument. “I usually have one or two beers maybe three or four nights a week,” Skaff says. “But,” he admits, “I don’t know if I’m doing that for brain health.” Doctors are human, too.

Masoud Ghalambor, M.D., orthopaedic surgeon with foot and ankle subspecialty at Sacramento Knee & Sports Medicine and Sutter Orthopaedic Institute
“The average person puts about 1,000 miles on their feet every year,” says foot-and-ankle man Masoud “Max” Ghalambor, M.D. All those miles of wear and tear can wreak havoc on anybody’s feet, pointing to the importance of taking care of your tootsies.

An engineer-turned-surgeon, Ghalambor, 45, says he uses engineering every day in his practice because “the foot is complicated. If you look at the number of bones, joints and ligaments in the foot [28, 33 and 112 respectively, according to one of his handouts], it’s amazing. The foot deserves more respect.”

Here’s how Ghalambor spells R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Well-fitting shoes. Fundamental to happy feet are shoes that fit, says Ghalambor. Problem is, no two feet are alike. “Nobody has equal size feet, so you have to find shoes to accommodate that,” he says. For Ghalambor, whose right foot has a higher arch than his left, that means wearing shoes with laces or “something with elasticity—flexibility on the upper part of the shoe.” Slip-on loafers often do the trick.

Compression stockings. To keep his feet from swelling, Ghalambor wears compression (support) stockings, which prevent fluid from accumulating in the legs. “They’re a little annoying,” he admits. “But if I’m on my feet a lot, they tend to swell at the end of the day, and the stockings prevent that.”

Callus control. As a child, Ghalambor broke his femur (thigh bone) and ended up in casts on both legs “for whatever reason. I actually don’t know why.” The upshot: A lifelong battle with severe calluses on both of his heels. “I think it was because I was putting pressure on my heels while wearing the casts,” Ghalambor theorizes. “Calluses are caused by increased pressure.” To keep his in check, he routinely inspects them and pares them down, typically with a metal file.

Warm baths. Foot pain should never be ignored, says Ghalambor, whose feet often hurt after a rigorous game of soccer. A warm foot bath is usually enough to relax the muscles and resolve the pain, he says. If he sustains an injury, he applies ice. The main thing, he says, is to “respect pain in the foot. If it hurts, you need to sort out why it’s hurting.”

Doesn’t get crazy with clippers. “If you clip your toenails too short or too round in the corners, you’re promoting the possibility of ingrown toenails,” says Ghalambor. Pedicure-lovers should be careful to pick a reputable salon, he says: Infections can and do happen, especially when foot spas are not routinely disinfected. 

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