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Treating People, Not Symptoms

As CEO and Executive Director, it’s both rewarding and challenging for Kris Nicholoff to manage the Michigan Osteopathic Association (MOA), an organization that supports over 8,000 physicians and medical student members across Michigan, and whose mission is “Physicians treating people, not symptoms”. Kris took on this new role five years ago. We all know it takes time to adjust to a new job, now pile on series of unexpected life challenges.

 Kris and his family experienced the sudden and unexpected loss of his 57-year-old eldest brother to a fatal heart attack. It was Kris’ place to help his aging parents cope with this incomprehensible loss that rocked the entire family, and which also took a tremendous toll on his parents. Kris stepped up to care for his grieving parents and did all that was necessary to help them age-in-place in their own home. Kris then lost his Dad and moved his Mom into long term care. In November 2013, Kris suffered the sudden loss of his 31-year-old nephew. Add this all up and you get a sense of the immense stress that Kris Nicholoff was under. Now Kris was the person who needed the treatment of an osteopathic physician.

“Life really threw me a curve ball; throw all those things together, and add to it my new job at MOA during this same time. I experienced depression and anxiety because I never really had a chance to grieve. I was too overwhelmed with responsibility for everything and everybody else. I used to be very athletic, but depression is a drain on energy, so I stopped exercising and I started eating more. I went on an anti-depressant, which helped a little, but then I gained weight as a side effect. I was getting older and my metabolism was slowing down. Then I realized….’I have put on 50 lbs.’!”

This year, Kris turned 51 years old, and he realized it was time to take stock. He suspected the weight and stress were taking a toll on his health. He knew it was time for a physical, but he put it off for a while. “This spring, I simply said to myself, ‘Just make the appointment and don’t look any further ahead. That’s all you have to do for now.’ I wanted to see what making the appointment felt like; I could always cancel it. Three or four days before, I was getting stressed out, but I just told myself to go. I knew it was the first step. The extra fat around my vital organs and on my joints, it just wasn’t healthy for me”, Kris said. We know that small, measureable steps are the key to make lasting changes, and making that appointment was a significant, yet doable step that may have changed the course of Kris’ life, for the better.

When he went for his checkup, his doctor said, “Kris, everything came back good, but here is where you are at. You have high blood pressure and diabetes”. Kris said, “For me, hearing that was a wake up call. And honestly, I was not shocked or even surprised. I knew that my energy was lower, that I had put on weight, and I knew those things have an effect on people. But then the doctor said, ‘You know the good news is, you can do something about it’. Taking the osteopathic approach and knowing me as a person, my doc gave me the chance to use some lifestyle medicine. By eating healthier and becoming more physically active, I hope to lose weight and not have to go on medications.” Kris didn’t just want to treat the symptoms. “Truth is, I was a bit relieved. ‘OK now I know what I am dealing with, we have identified it and here’s the plan of attack’”, Kris said.

Kris shared his strategy, “Moving more and eating healthy is a bit like getting out of financial debt, and you have to take small steady steps. Pay yourself first. Make it a set amount each week toward paying down the debt. Don’t use credit cards, then the money will slowly add up. Use credit cards down the road when you can handle them. It’s the same with your health. Be intentional and pay yourself first by carving out time to move each day. Eating fruits and vegetables is like paying cash, it’s good for you and you can burn it off that day. It’s not going to build up into a debt you cannot pay. The urge to stress eat is like the urge to spend, it catches up with you. You have to think about what you are doing and have a plan.”

“My goal is to improve my numbers within the next 3 to 6 months. I have lost 15 pounds mainly through healthy eating and light exercise, which I hope to kick up a notch. I have 35 to go. I think I can do it by breaking it into small pieces. I don’t set goals by looking a week out, but just a day out. I ask myself to just do something right for 48 hours.   Drink this much water, just for two days. When we are scheduled to have a medical test, we can follow the 24 hour regimen the doctor gives us. We commit to it and we do just fine. So, I apply that to my daily wellness and follow a regimen for just a couple of days, then I try two more days. If you only look at the big picture and the total weight loss goal, it’s overwhelming. But if you break it up into small segments, two pounds here, two pounds there, it seems to work. I approach it as small steps, just for today.”

Kris said it helps him to share his goal with others. “People encourage me and give me ideas, and sometimes their ideas fit and I incorporate them into my routine. And I know accomplishing this goal is in my capacity, I have done it before. I know what it’s like to live a healthy lifestyle. Each time I do something positive, it’s a healthy deposit.”

We asked Kris what would be helpful to others who have gained weight and suspect they need to do something about it. “Don’t stay in denial. Making the doctor’s appointment and getting the news is like opening that bill you have been avoiding, you don’t want to see what’s inside. Open the bill and go see the doctor. Then deal with it. Pay yourself first, which means take care of yourself first by making healthy food choices and be more active. Make it a priority, take control and have confidence. Look at all the life challenges you have dealt with and know you can do this too. Believe in yourself, look at your progress and pat yourself on the back along the way.”

Just as Kris’ friends have shared ideas with him, we asked Kris to share some of his strategies. “I have replaced soda with water or low sodium V8, replaced sweets with fruits and have cut back on gluten. I eat more frequently, and when I sit down to a big meal I just have smaller portions.” We also asked Kris to share his favorite recipe. “Tuna salad made with albacore tuna, add finely diced vegetables, add a little vinegar and oil, and then serve it as a wrap in Boston lettuce. Simple and easy”, Kris added. When we asked how he deals with stress now, Kris stated, “If I find myself wanting to grab a bite to eat, but I am really not hungry, I do some stretching instead and find that the urge to eat will pass. You have to have your own way to deal with a stress-eating urge, and find what works for you. But you have to have a plan.”

Kris reflected on our weight problem in Michigan. “Obesity touches us all. It touches the disadvantaged and it touches those who have means. I am educated, make a good living, so I should know how to live at a healthy weight. However, our environments have enabled us to develop habits that we just accept and lead us to not take very good care of ourselves. I think we are more stressed in the American culture than we have ever been.   We are constantly ‘connected’ to technology. People eat when they are stressed. Our plate sizes are much larger than they were in the 50’s and 60’s. Our burger sizes are so much bigger, and sometimes they aren’t even just a burger. Now they come with bacon, onion rings and two different kinds of cheese on top. Then all of this becomes a habit that we don’t even consciously think about anymore.”

We wondered what gave Kris the resolve to share his very personal story. “I have always admired people who have had the courage to publicly share their challenges to help others. Stories are memorable and something people can relate to. If I can share my story and help someone else, I want to help. I want to give encouragement. We gain strength from other people’s story because we can relate to it.”

What if they are afraid of what they might hear from the doctor? Kris added, “What’s it going to hurt? It can only help. Fear of the unknown is more painful. Once you know you can take action. That’s a real message for men. We are the last ones to go to the doctor. We foolishly tell ourselves, ‘If I don’t know, then there is nothing wrong’, but inside you know it’s not true. It’s always there, it isn’t going to go away, deal with it.”

What does Kris want to tell someone who is on the fence about taking action? “You are no good to anyone else unless you are good to yourself. Anyone that cares about you, and there are many, they want you to take care of you first. Not by becoming selfish, but looking out for yourself as much as those you look out for, put yourself in the mix, you are on that list of those to care for.”