NO MATTER your age, you never leave your parents. In fact, the older you grow, the more ruled you are by the genetics they passed along.
At 52, I could see a mirror image of my father staring back at me each morning. This face sometimes brought a sigh, other times a shiver. It reminded me that at the age I was now, he had just two years left to live.
A cerebral hemorrhage struck my dad without warning and took him quickly. Why this happened – an inherited defect or untreated high blood pressure or another undetected condition – we never knew. I did know that we didn’t share much in our style of living.
He had smoked; I never had. He’d exercised little to none after leaving the farm a decade earlier; I had never stopped running.
But Dad and I still shared genetics. If he died young, might I be programmed the same way?
This became more than a fleeting dark thought the weekend before Halloween. I was in Alhambra for the Moonlight 8K, where my main job was P.A. announcing.
At dusk I was taking a break as a local band played, with more volume than talent. A runner came over to the low platform where I stood and shouted words I couldn’t hear. After bending closer and talking briefly, I stood up.
Suddenly I lost focus. The scene around me went into a spin. The spotlighted starting area faded toward darkness. The band’s volume stilled toward silence.
My weak knees lowered me slowly toward the stage. I had just enough time to think, Is this how it ends? With a stroke? Like Dad?
Then, as quickly as this episode had struck, it passed. My equilibrium returned, my hearing sharpened, my vision cleared.
Still shaken and woozy, I muddled through the night’s announcing. I never said at the time what had just happened, though anyone who knew me would have noticed that something was wrong.
Later that night, when I gave my wife Barbara a heavily edited report (down to “dizzy spell”), I shook off her suggestion that we visit an emergency room. The doctor visits, lots of them, would come later.
FOR THE next year or so I wasn’t myself. This was evident to anyone I talked with, or who sat through one of my speeches, or who read some of my columns.
Nineteen-ninety-six, the year of Boston’s 100th and the Atlanta Olympics, was my year of living dizzily. It wasn’t as if I appeared falling-down drunk but just a little tipsy.
While trying to appear and act normal, I was never quite right. Sights, sounds and thoughts were slightly out of focus. Running, writing and speaking (formally or socially) were never much fun, and were sometimes nauseating.
The symptoms were worst when they first struck in late 1995, then they waxed and waned after that. But they never went away until another year was ending.
The first doctor I saw said, “You can take a drug and feel groggy all the time, or you can tough it out. The vertigo will probably go away on its own.”
I said no to drugs but soon ran out of toughness. I saw six more medical professionals that year, trying to learn what was wrong and what to do about it. They ruled out the scariest possibilities, but supplied no definite diagnosis or solution.
Then I got lucky. In the fall I came home from yet another doctor’s visit and turned on the local television news that I’d normally not watch at that hour.
A report was ending with a young woman running across the screen. The voice-over said, “Her battle with vertigo appears to be won, thanks to the exercises her doctor prescribed.”
I called the TV station, asking for a copy of this full piece. “We can’t do that,” I was told in that era before websites made everything available, “but we can give you a contact.”
That phone number connected me with the Center for Balance Disorders in Houston. I asked for the exercises but was told, “It would be unethical for us to recommend a treatment plan without first evaluating you.”
I would have taken the next flight to Texas. But the Balance Center there had a better idea: referral to a physician doing the same type of work in Portland, a two-hours’ drive from home.
This doctor fit me in quickly, and the first exam lasted as long as the drive from Eugene. Afterward the doctor said, “We want you to take more tests, but your symptoms strongly suggest that you have...” Then he reeled off about a dozen syllables describing an inner-ear disorder.
“Did any of that make sense?” asked his nurse when the doctor left. Not much, I said, so she translated.
“He says you probably have BPPV. That’s benign, which means it won’t kill you; paroxysmal, meaning you sometimes have it and sometimes not; positional, with quick changes in head position causing symptoms; vertigo, or imbalance.”
In most cases, I was told, this condition could be treated without drugs or surgery. Specially prescribed diet and exercises could ease if not erase the vertigo.
I went on the diet (cutting way down on my sugar and upping the protein gave best results). I did the exercises (sometimes). Soon I felt more level-headed that anytime in the past year.
A truism of medicine seems to have worked again: Look long enough and an answer will usually appear.
Photo: Breakfast with Steve and Joan Ottaway in Alhambra, just hours before my vertigo first struck.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]