GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In the intimacy of a barber’s chair, there is an openness to the conversation between barber and client.
Tommy Rodriguez is familiar with the relationship. He opened Henchman House Barbershop in Grand Rapids with the goal of delivering a space for good conversations, camaraderie and haircuts for everyone. The promise is in the name: to be a trusted follower and right-hand man.
“I feel the barbershop can be a very powerful place for having significant conversations,” Rodriguez said. “Whether it’s your day, your home life or health, there’s a calm yet proactive feeling when you leave here.”
To mark November, Men’s Health Awareness Month, eight men shared their health journeys through the lens of the barbershop. They bravely opened up in a raw, real and vulnerable way to help other men or loved ones at home recognize the signs and symptoms of diseases that predominantly affect men.
The men were ordinary West Michigan neighbors who had the world ahead of them before disease caught up. Their stories of addiction, anger, heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, colorectal and prostate cancer set the stage for conversations that men need to be having with those closest to them in their life and with their primary care physician.
Having a primary care doctor and getting in for your yearly exam is the single most important step that everyone can take to prioritize their health, said Dr. Ken Dood from University of Michigan Health-West. He said the right doctor for you is one you feel comfortable talking to.
“If you’re in my office during an appointment, we should be able to talk about something that’s uncomfortable or your health or the game last Saturday and it should all feel the same,” Dood said. “You should be able to just have a conversation.”
He said it’s important to remember that there aren’t always readily apparent signs of the health risks associated with addiction, anger and anxiety and starting that conversation with your physician is an important first step.
“There isn’t a blood test, there isn’t a number we can check, so if you notice things are not going well in your life, if you notice that you’re doing some of those things because you have to and not because you want to, than it’s time to get in and talk to somebody,” Dood said.
Dood said men are probably already prioritizing conversations about their health with the important people in their lives, so it should not be difficult to talk about health history. He said that as cliche as it sounds, passing down those health facts to other generations can “literally be life or death.”
“My grandpa taught my dad to fish, my dad taught me to fish, you pass those things down. So do the same with health care and those issues. You probably know more than you think you do. If there’s something you think needs to be passed down, bring it up,” Dood said.
Alcohol was always different for WOOD Radio morning news host Steve Kelly. From the moment he first tried it, he knew. By the time he reached middle age, he went from being a “pretty good drinker” to throwing his “leg over the fence and becoming a professional.”
“There was a good long time when it (drinking) singularly called the shots. And somehow during that time period, I appear to be engaged in pictures, people that listened to me on the radio didn’t know it. Family members had no idea,” Kelly said. “My goal was not to get blackout drunk. My goal was to stay as medicated as I thought I needed.”
In the height of his addiction, he was stopping at four liquor stores a day and paying alternatively with cash and credit cards or side money so that his wife, who did the bills, wouldn’t find out.
“It was as bad as it gets,” Kelly said of his addiction. “I don’t know how close I was to getting kicked out of the house. I know that my physical health suffered. I know that the roulette game of sneaking alcohol was at an amazing pace. The terror of worrying about where the next drink would come from was as scary a feeling as I’ve ever felt in my life.”
His alcoholic low, he said, came at the doctor’s office one morning. Sitting next to his wife after he had already “snuck a few,” Kelly’s doctor told him that he had an alcoholic liver and he needed to stop drinking or he would die.
“I didn’t stop drinking right away. I knew it was time,” Kelly said. “The fear of getting rid of the shield that I thought I was putting up against all of that anxiety, the vulnerability of that trauma that I couldn’t stop playing in my head was more terrifying than the idea of dying. Most of us do — most of us who are addicted or are alcoholics die young.”
He can remember the day he decided to take his life back from alcohol. It was Lent. On his knees in front of God, he acknowledged his disease and his need for help. On a footstool in the middle of the living room, he told his kids that “he had ruined his life” but “he would fix it.”
“It’s a decision to get help. It’s a decision to say you don’t want to drink anymore and that’s when the true healing begins,” Kelly said. “For me specifically in my recovery, I needed to go about the business of discovering what was causing me to medicate. That came almost purely through years of therapy, hard work, honest work, in therapy, that saved my life.”
He shared his story now to help others see that there is hope, no matter where they are in their journey. He has text messages from men just like him who have battled back from addiction to reclaim their lives and relationships.
“Knowing now what I know, I don’t know how I needed it in the first place. Everything in my life is better without it. My relationships are better. My health, my physical health is better,” Kelly said. “By the grace of God, mental health and physical health professionals, the accountability of groups like AA and friends that have gone before me, I can say that I’ve been sober for over eight and a half years.”
His message to the 1 in 5 American men battling alcohol dependence or the over 12% addicted to drugs is simple: There is hope.
“No matter how low down you think you are, no matter how unworthy you think you are, you are worthy of God’s love,” Kelly said. “There is hope and that it is never too late. Go get the help you deserve.”
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a hotline at 1.800.662.HELP (4357) that’s available 24/7 to find treatment or help near you.
Grand Rapids business owner Dan Beelen has spent his life in construction, but his hardest work came from years and years of therapy to help manage his anger and rage.
“I started at Fountain Hill (Center for counseling) in 2003. It was about abuse, abusive relationships. In my case, me to my wife at the time,” Beelen said. “At the beginning, there’s pushing and shoving and screaming and yelling. That went away. The physical abuse wasn’t there but my interior was the same. It was the same. And that comes through.”
Research shows that men and women get angry at equal rates. However, men show more aggression when acting on that feeling, which makes them more likely to suffer from anger or rage problems.
“The first time I went (to therapy), it was ‘cause of some pressure from my brother. After that, I wanted to be there,” Beelen said of his first visit to the Men’s Resource Center at Fountain Hill, in 2003. “It was learning how to listen to my body. That was part of it. Learning what it felt like physically inside to be angry and start to understand that it was OK to be angry. I could just be. I didn’t have to do anything about it.”
He spent eight and a half years learning and getting uncomfortable with his anger and eventually came to the realization that he was not upset with his wife.
“That was a couple years worth (of therapy), figuring out that I wasn’t angry at my wife, that she didn’t deserve 99% of that,” Beelen said. “It was fearful discovering that I was angry, really, probably, mostly with my father. Not that he was a bad father.”
Beelen credits the other men in the room at therapy with helping him see inside himself and letting the change happen to him.
“It’s different now, my life. It’s a much better life. I’m more aware of the people around me. I’m certainly aware that I don’t know everything. I don’t know how people should be acting, what they should be thinking and feeling. That’s a relief,” Beelen said.
“I don’t particularly want to talk on TV or anything about my abusive past. I really don’t. But if I’m asked, I’m willing,” he continued. “‘Cause people need to know, need to hear, they can come out on the other end maybe and experience healing.”
You can find resources similar to those that helped Beelen through the Men’s Resource Center.
Two years ago, Jonathan Kueppers nearly became part of the staggering statistics.
He was on his way back from work and stopped at a light near Byron Center Avenue and 84th Street. He put his car in park and rolled down his window. What happened next was told to him later by those who saved his life.
“The lady two cars behind, she came up to me and she checked my pulse, and I didn’t have a pulse. The fire captain, which (the fire station) was less than a block away, was leaving at that time pulled up behind all the commotion going and said, ‘What’s going on?’ She said, ‘He doesn’t have a pulse,’” Kueppers said. “They pulled me out, put me on the grass. She did a chest compression and then he got the defibrillator. They shocked me. And then within six minutes, they had to shock me again.”
Kueppers has a condition called cardiomyopathy, a chronic disease that makes it hard for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body. A healthy heart pumps at 100% capacity; his was only at 15%.
“I’m a miracle. There’s nothing short of the fact that I’m a miracle because I fully recovered,” Kueppers said. “I think it’s 3% of the people that survive what I went through.”
“A lot of that stuff we’ll pick up on a yearly physical,” Dr. Dood said of heart problems with no signs or symptoms, like Kueppers’ condition. “There’s some screening blood work that we can do and we can get a lot of information out of that and kind of give us a direction as to where to head. If we start to pick up some abnormalities, then we start working those up further.”
Tom Turner, a longtime director at WOOD TV8, had just hit the game-winning shot during a round of pickup basketball at the YMCA. He said he stepped off to the side and collapsed. It took 13 minutes to revive him. He spent seven days in a coma.
After waking up and having quadruple bypass surgery, his cardiologist told him that he had likely had diabetes for longer than either of them knew.
“We were trying to get control of my diabetes at the time of the heart attack and didn’t really know how bad it was,” Turner said. “I didn’t really have any true symptoms that I was aware of at the time. I just knew that my blood sugars were high at times.”
Diabetes is the sixth leading cause of death for men in America. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that men account for more than half of all cases and that 4 million men are living with diabetes now and don’t realize it.
Not controlling the body’s blood sugar can put stress on other organs and lead to long-term damage or death.
“What happens is as the blood sugar increases over time, the little arteries in and around the heart, the brain, the kidneys make changes,” Dr. Dood said. “They don’t know why the blood sugar is high and they don’t really care, they just make those changes. So then you end up with arteries that aren’t working as well and you have a blood supply issue. That leads to all kinds of issues down the road.”
Dood said it’s like lifting a dumbbell over and over again but telling the bicep muscle not to get bigger: it’s not going to happen. The longer a body’s blood sugar is high, the more damage is done to the vascular system. He said people should look for signs or symptoms like excessive thirst or urination. They should know their family history and their body mass index; diabetes is more common in those with a higher BMI.
Turner knows the dangers of unmanaged blood sugar. It can kill you. He’s thankful that now he has an insulin pump. It’s programmed to his body-specific requirements and gives him an adequate amount of insulin when he needs it to help maintain his blood sugar.
Dood said a diabetes diagnosis is nothing to be intimidated by.
“I have not met a patient that we can’t get under control relatively easily. It may take a little bit of time but we can get you there on a regimen that you can follow,” Dood said. “It’s overwhelming at first but it doesn’t have to be once you get into the regimen and you keep those follow-up appointments and we continue to check things and make sure we know where we’re at. We can typically get it under control.”
Will Collins remembers when his mental health disorders reached a breaking point. They had stacked up and up over the years, left unmanaged and undiagnosed. One day, he wrote goodbye letters to his children and created a plan to “stop battling.”
“A fight is a fight when you feel like you can win, but a fight is no good when you feel like you don’t have a chance to win,” Collins said. “I didn’t see a positive end. I didn’t see a positive outlook. There was no light at the end of the tunnel.”
Collins was lucky enough that a friend and mentor picked up the phone when he decided to make one last phone call. That friend, who was out of the country at the time, gave him a number to a suicide hotline. But calling it went against everything in Collins’s instincts.
“As a young Black man in the inner city, talking about your feelings to that level, you didn’t do it. You weren’t taught to do it. And it was almost encouraged that you do not do it,” Collins said. “You didn’t talk about stress, anxiety. Those types of conversations never existed. They never happened. In fact, if you did talk about it that was a sign of being weak, being labeled a punk. Right? You can’t be a punk in inner-city Detroit, you don’t survive. So you play cool, you play tough.”
It’s those habits that Collins started as a young man that shaped poor management of his mental health as an adult. He would wake up with cold sweats, overwhelmed by nervousness about nothing in particular. He avoided gatherings and friends because he lacked trust in relationships. He didn’t know how to talk about it.
“I wish I knew that bottling it up, how that could really have a negative impact on you in your later years,” Collins said.
On his lowest day, Collins used the number his friend gave him. The people manning the hotline told him to slow down, breathe and think of two good things in his life. He thought of his kids.
“Ignoring it was easy. Talking about it, it’s a lot of work,” Collins said. “My goal is to help someone who’s thinking right now, ‘I’m struggling, but I can’t do anything about it. I’m struggling and there’s nobody that cares. I’m struggling and I have no resources of how to attack this thing.’ I feel great ‘cause I want them to know if I can, they can.”
Those in need of help can call the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline anytime. It is now reachable by dialing 988.
Craig Kooienga was proud of his healthy lifestyle. He ate well and was at the top of his form athletically, competing in eight marathons, 12 half-marathons and a number of triathlons. While training for the Chicago Half Marathon in the fall of 2019, Kooienga began to notice signs in his digestive system that seemed off.
“I can remember being at a Merrell Trail and, you know, having an emergency,” Kooienga said. “I just figured it was something I ate or whatever, or getting older and it happened a couple other times.”
It was after noticing blood clots in his stool and having a conversation with his friend, a local physician’s assistant, that he called his primary care doctor to get checked out. The blood work order by his physician came back normal, reflecting the care he took in his body. But the symptoms persisted and the words of his doctor hung with Kooienga: “When it comes to cancer, the symptoms don’t go away.”
Kooienga advocated for himself to get a colonoscopy at just 46 years old. With no family history of colorectal cancer and his young age, it was alarming when Kooienga woke from the procedure to his doctor telling him there was a sizable tumor in his rectum.
“I can remember waking up from the colonoscopy and looking around and my wife was sitting there and I could tell she was a little bit teary eyed. My physician told me, he didn’t have to get very far inside me to realize that there was a sizable tumor in my rectum. It was like 7 centimeters long,” Kooienga said. “Stage 3 rectal cancer, there’s a decent survival rate, but there’s a lot of people that lose their lives. And I know a number of people that I’ve come in contact with in the past few years since my diagnosis that had literally the same diagnosis as I had and they didn’t make it.”
Kooienga and his doctors acted fast. With rectal cancer, he said, doctors have found that chemotherapy followed by radiation and then surgery to remove the rectum has been successful. He underwent four and a half months of chemo and then radiation every weekday, five days a week, for 28 treatments.
On Oct. 10, 2020, less than a year after his diagnosis, Kooienga had his rectum removed and an ileostomy for the next three months. On Jan. 21, 2021 doctors reattached his large intestines to where his rectum used to be.
“There’s definitely a new normal for me,” Kooienga said. “I am cancer free. Yeah. Very thankful to say that I’m cancer free.”
When it comes to helping others, Kooienga cannot stress enough the importance of listening to what your body is saying.
“The faith that I had in my diet and in my physical fitness, yeah, I had way too much faith in that because no matter how healthy you are, no matter what lifestyle you live, how great your diet is, this is something obviously that can happen to anybody,” Kooienga said. “If you think that there’s something up, that there’s something wrong, if this isn’t normal, don’t wait to get it checked out. Go in, see your doctor, be a man, get it taken care of.”
The prostate: It is not an area that men are excited to talk about. Alejandro Alvarez knows that feeling. He told no one when he had a burning sensation during intercourse with his wife. It wasn’t until two months later, as the symptom persisted, that he finally told his wife.
“She said, ‘I have an appointment for you and you’ve got to go and do it,’” Alvarez said. “When the doctor called me and said, ‘You have cancer but we need to know how much you have in your body,’ it was like everything stopped.”
When he got his prostate cancer diagnosis, Alvarez was just 54, much younger than the average age of 66. Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths among men. According to the West Michigan Prostate Health Alliance, 1 in 7 men in West Michigan will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime. Catching it early dramatically increases the chance of survival.
“What you’re looking for is changes in your urinary habits. So if you urinate more often or you feel like you’re urinating often but you’re not emptying your bladder so you have to go again in 20 minutes or half an hour, those are signs that that prostate may be enlarged, which may be a simple fix and not necessarily cancer, ” Dr. Dood said. “We want to catch it ahead of time. We want to do that blood work, make sure we know what’s going on so if it is cancer we can get it fixed.”