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Don’t smoke, get fat or lose your family

As I do almost every morning, I just finished reading the newspaper. Several morning papers, in fact. Newsprint versions with my magnifying glass in hand and online options using my iPad with its enlarged font.

Retirement creates the opportunity for leisurely morning rituals, and I am fortunate in having a variety of visual aids to accommodate aging eyes. That’s the good news.

But the news in general is not good. I roll through articles reporting death (political or otherwise) and disaster (imminent or already realized). Today I am sobered by too-many profiles of desperate people in difficult circumstances of their own making or as a result of poor decisions by local or national leaders.

Years ago, my younger and only sister — who is now also retired — worked as an epidemiologist and a uniformed member of the U.S. Public Health Service. She was onsite directing hospital and nursing home recovery efforts for displaced persons after hurricanes Katrina and Ike.

That was over a decade ago, but I remember her weary end-of-day messages, one in particular: “Lessons reinforced by working with patient population — don’t smoke, get fat or lose connection with your family.”

I was struck at the time by the practical relevance of her observations and think they have continuing application to the news of the day. Let’s take them one at a time.

“Don’t smoke.” If you’re a smoker, there’s probably nothing I can offer at this point to redirect your behavior. Not even this morning’s newspaper photograph of an elderly, lifetime smoker sitting in a flimsy shelter choking and gasping for breath in the aftermath of a raging firestorm.

“Don’t get fat.” If you’re trapped in horrific emergency circumstances and you’re obese, it’s almost impossible to transport you to safety. There are so many challenges tied to excess weight that include cardiac issues and diabetes, but it’s a whole different issue if you are unable to get to safe haven in a storm because your lifetime of overeating doesn’t allow the rescue helicopter to get off the ground.

“Don’t lose connection with family.” It’s one thing to be old and alone, but it’s quite another if there is a storm brewing and an emergency worker asks, “Who can we contact?” And you have no names to give them.

Think about those examples as you read your paper today and sip your morning coffee. So, what’s the message? “Get in touch with your own health?” That’s always my message. Important, of course, but there are other things going on.

Today’s message is “a storm is coming.” There’s a hurricane of circumstances significant beyond anything we have seen in generations. The list of challenges is long … environmental disasters and climate change doubters, eroding infrastructure and a slow-acting bureaucracy. Pandemic leftovers that never seem to stop surprising us. And this — there’s that desperate need for more political truth-telling.

It is quite a storm. Stand ready. We are going to need each other. Smoke if you must. Eat what you will. But definitely do not lose connection with your family.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at sharjohn99@gmail.com.