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Women Advocating for Their Health

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Hey moms, your new health to-do list starts today. We all know that it can be difficult for today’s working mothers. Beyond our daily responsibilities at work, we also serve as the Chief Medical Officer for our home. With tissue in one hand and a thermometer in the other, we make doctor appointments for our spouses, children and sometimes for other family members like our parents. We worry about the swine flu. We help choose our healthcare plans and make sure everyone’s prescription is right, up to date and filled. It’s all in a day’s work as we try to keep our families healthy.

As a mother, a nurse and now even as the CEO of one of the country’s leading health care system, the wellbeing of my family has always been a priority. Perhaps it’s all part my nurturing DNA that all women possess. But like most women, I sometimes forget to take care of me. As we hold so much of our families’ care in our hands and in our hearts, many of us forgo our own health. We constantly put love ones’ needs before our own. We go to work sick, forgo our mammograms and pap smears and just never seem to have the time to exercise. We say to ourselves, “I have to get around to that.” And then we never seem to make the time.

Women are grossly underserved when it comes to health improvement. There are over 17 million uninsured women in the U.S. alone, plus women account for less than 30 percent of the participation in clinical trials on new medications and procedures. Even women fortunate enough to have access to care still lack current information, consistent diagnoses, and most importantly – a sense of empathy with other women.

It’s imperative that we learn to manage our family’s health along with our own. It should never be an “either-or” situation when it comes to the wellbeing of our family. We need to incorporate basic things into our lives including taking time for ourselves, sharing our stories with other women and utilizing resources that can help us emotionally and physically. That should also be our priority as we maneuver through our daily lives.

I know sometimes it can be difficult for us to put ourselves first but we have to find the time. What I do is schedule time to make sure I’m taking care of me. Whether its time that I set aside to make sure I have all of my annual doctor appointments scheduled or it’s a block of time that I have scheduled to work out, I have it in my work calendar. This helps me incorporate my “ME” time into my overall time management. Figure out a system that works for you to make your “ME” time easier to manage.

In addition, I want to encourage you to help elevate the health needs and concerns of women. Often I find that many women are not aware of the power of their voice. We have to learn to advocate for our health issues. As our country looks at a new way to approach healthcare to make it accessible to everyone, we have to ensure we are at the table for the discussion. We can no longer sit back and let someone else decide what’s best for our bodies. Enough talk about it just being in our head or in our uterus. Our symptoms are different and we need to demand that we are heard in the doctor’s office, the media and even in the halls of congress.

At St. Joseph Health System, we have taken a hard look at how we can improve access to care for women of all races, creeds and economic and social status. We will not ignore the physical or emotional needs of a woman --- not on my watch. It’s our mission to address the issues that affect a woman’s overall well being whether its heart disease, cancer, stress, depression or diabetes, we are committed to providing the resources necessary at our 14 hospitals, home health agencies and through our community benefit programs.

I am blessed that I have the opportunity to lead an organization that values women like you and me. However, the greatest lesson I’ve learned throughout my journey is that at the end of the day, it’s up to us to take care of ourselves. Take time to make YOU a priority because your families’ wellbeing starts with you.

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EmpowHER Guest

Deborah Proctor is the President and CEO of St. Joseph Health System.

May 14, 2009 - 2:44pm

I think that for many of us, "Me" time is a myth. It is so much work to eke out the time and motivation to put ourselves higher on the list that we would simply rather not struggle with it.

Few of us have good role models of this behavior, because we didn't see it from our mothers. They worked hard, they kept house and raised children and possibly went to work as well. There was always something that needed doing, often two things at a time. My memories of my parents watching television in the evening were these: My dad in his chair, watching the show, and my mom in her chair, watching the show and folding laundry.

It seems like the only way to find "me" time is to let other things go undone, and that's very very difficult. It doesn't seem as difficult for men, possibly because they're wired differently and possibly because they had different role models growing up.

There is an enormous amount of guilt carried around by women who don't think that they are doing enough, being enough, earning enough, caring enough, and accomplishing enough. I know I feel it, despite the fact that (cognitively) I know I am working hard and I am a worthy soul.

On some basis, this pattern must work for us. If it wasn't working for us in some way, we'd change. I think that we actually feel better when we're last than when we're first. I think it must be more natural to put others first.

And I think we're overly optimistic. I know that we believe, in our hearts, that if we JUST work a little harder, we actually COULD get the to-do list finished, cook healthy meals, work out, manage the household, get the kids from school, watch all their games, enjoy a relationship with our husband, keep in touch with friends and find some meditation time in there somewhere.

Those things I've listed right there? That's a fulltime job, and I haven't even mentioned working outside the home.

I think the best we can do, sometimes, is baby steps. To figure out one small thing we could do and do it. Maybe it's scheduling a workout in our calendar, like you suggested; or maybe it's just being determined to work on our guilt.

See the things you already do. Give yourself credit for them -- and it should be at LEAST as much credit as the things that go undone. If you first balance the way you think about yourself, it will be easier later on to try to balance your life.

Really. We have to get off our own backs first, I think. And that's a lot easier said than done.

May 11, 2009 - 8:36am

You have a very powerful message, and I'm glad that we have a strong and knowledgeable woman advocating for women's health! I am still surprised when I hear about how many research studies have been conducted with men, only for the findings of the research to be generalized to both men and women (heart disease is one instance). Who knew woman had different symptoms of heart disease, until recently?!

Your point about women not taking time for themselves definitely rang true with me, while putting their family first. I read an article that this home management (whether the woman has kids or not; works outside the home or not) is called the "invisible housework", and many men still are not contributing equally in this area. Invisible housework is the behind-the-scenes management that you mentioned: making doctor appointments, filling prescriptions, following up with phone calls, meal-planning, buying birthday presents for friends/family, etc. These things take time and organization, and also some initial "research", plus usually is more time-sensitive and not as gratifying as mowing the lawn or cleaning the dishes where you see instant results! (ha--I did just say the word "gratifying" and "cleaning the dishes" in one sentence...).

The most difficult part with advocating for ourselves and each other is when we are in the doctor's office, in my opinion. Face-to-face with a person who (we hope) has a lot of knowledge and experience in a particular area. You are half-clothed, nervous, wanting to get out quick, but needing to stay to ask questions. The doctor's hand may even already be on the door handle to escae, and you have to pull out your written list of questions, be OK with a faint sigh, and proceed with asking. It's difficult, and this is if you don't have a diagnosis...just routine questions! I would love for this patient-doctor relationship to change, but how do we create change when health care provider's waiting rooms are filled, they do not have enough time for every patient even it they wanted to, and many are not well-versed on alternative and complementary medicines or the "whole" person to engage in many conversations. I've noticed many of the health care providers whom I really, really liked still are not comfortable talking about emotions, sexuality or diet.

Thanks for sparking a great conversation!

May 10, 2009 - 1:17pm

Deborah, thanks for such a powerful reminder of the importance of taking care of ourselves. Many women define themselves by what they sacrifice, and sometimes it feels like we've given away too much.

And to your point, prevention is key. We need to set aside time for exercise, we need to schedule 'me' time for sanity's sake and we need to schedule preventative screenings and tests.

One of the things I often hear from busy women is that while they know they need to schedule their tests, they're not sure which tests they should have and when. While there's no true consensus from experts on how often women should be tested, there are some general guidelines. Here's a great guide on women's health screenings and what to expect.

Also, for those who may be looking for free or low-cost screenings in their area, be sure to visit our health events section.

Thanks again Deborah.

May 10, 2009 - 9:27am
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