Acts of the Heart

When the University of Mississippi Medical Center and the Manning Family Fund came to me about helping promote their mission, it was a no-brainer: who doesn’t love Archie and Olivia? Some would say they’re the First Family of Mississippi. Their website explains that in Mississippi, giving isn’t just something we do, it’s what makes us who we are. And when you give to the Manning Family Fund, you’re helping find new ways to treat and prevent disease. You’re helping care for Mississippians in need. You’re helping make a healthier Mississippi. As a Mississippian who tries to make healthy decisions, I was hooked. 


Of all the health missions the MFF focuses on, men’s health, mine in particular, is something that I wake up thinking about and go to sleep worrying about. I’m not a fitness expert, nor am I a nutritionist. Notice, I said I try to make healthy decisions. I am, however, a man who struggles with my love for our southern cuisine, the meat and three, the red velvet cake, the pecan pie, the bacon and tomato sandwiches fresh from my father-in-law’s garden slathered in mayonnaise: all the reasons Mississippi is one of the most overweight states in the country. One could venture to say that 90% of the men in this great state fit that same description. We could all stand to be a little more conscious of our eating and exercise habits. This is what UMMC and the Manning Family Fund are trying to do. Help the men in our communities—and those in our lives—live longer, healthier, happier lives.

I’m a big man who comes from big people. It’s something we pride ourselves on. I’m the second born of four boys. We grew up playing sports, working on farms, helping our dad work on cars, and eating enough food to feed an entire army daily. The four of us could go into an all-you-can-eat buffet with our dad and put a hurting on the restaurant’s bottom line. Four gallons of whole milk wouldn’t last a week. Now, back when I was a lean, athletic teenager this type of eating didn’t seem like much of a problem. We were all slim and trim, at the top of our physically fit game. 

I feel like this is the biggest problem facing the men in my family. We eat to fuel our bodies, but when our athletic output drops we don’t lower our intake and usually, this starts right out of high school. When you combine this with the stress of raising a family and paying bills, you get a deadly combination. What’s worse, the more stressed we get, the more we eat. If I’ve got a crazy work schedule, insane deadlines in the woodshop, or haven’t had enough sleep, I turn to food. I know this is the case for most men. We find ourselves too busy, too stubborn, or too strapped for funds to get frequent health screenings and checkups, therefore allowing our quietly declining health to go unnoticed until it is too late.


My grandfathers were the same way. They came from a generation of men who don’t discuss their health. My maternal grandfather, whom I am named for, passed away from a stroke when my mother was in high school. My paternal grandfather has fared better, but has had multiple open-heart surgeries. Granddaddy Ben fought in WWII, smoked cigarettes as most of the veterans did, and had his stroke in rural south Mississippi in 1971. Our other grandfather was in his 70s when he had his first surgery. I point out these two facts because they both seemed so far from the life my brothers and I lived. Then, in 2014, one month before his 60th birthday, our father had emergency bypass surgery.


Suddenly, this problem that seemed so far from me was standing right in front of me. Erin wrote a blog post on our Laurel Mercantile Journal in which she describes a recurring dream she has about me having heart failure. She says of my dad’s surgery, “It frightened me so badly—the sight of his burly, strong, unbreakable father in a hospital bed the night before surgery, then on the ventilator after the surgery the next day.” This is how we all felt. Later, my mom told me that she was on the verge of a breakdown the whole time we were at the hospital, but that she couldn't because her boys were all there, each on the verge of their own breakdown. 

The thought of my mom on that day broke my heart. I couldn't imagine Erin having to go through that and now that I'm a father, my health is even more important. I want to be there for every milestone in my daughter’s life and I want to hold Erin’s hand every step of the way. I never want to leave her side, which means taking care of my heart has to be a major priority. Part of Erin's 30th birthday gift was a calcium screening to check my heart health, which I was relieved to report, I passed with flying colors. I try to get checked more frequently. I bought a blood pressure cuff to check my own at home. I exercise 3-4 times a week, and I do my best to make healthy low-carb decisions when eating. 

The Manning Family Fund is working to break down the cultural, economic, psychological, political, and social barriers that keep men from eating better, exercising more, reducing stress, and getting regular checkups. These barriers all contribute to the problem. Lets face it, in Mississippi, eating is part of our culture. It’s part of our psychological make up. From childhood, most great memories we have revolve around food and the people we shared it with. If we go to a social gathering, there better be some food. Financially, it’s cheaper on the front end to go through a drive-through or pick up a box of fried chicken than it is to get locally grown meats and vegetables that we can cook on our own. In the long run, however, the latter is the more affordable option when looking at the effects it has on our bodies. 


I don’t expect the men of Mississippi to pass up a plate of pot roast and mashed potatoes with brown gravy every time, but I hope we can work to better engage all men in their own health care—to encourage moving our bodies, making them stronger, making them healthier one walk or one bench press at a time, then monitoring our progress with regular health screenings. The Sports for Life program at UMMC has partnered with events like the Governor’s Cup, the annual baseball game between the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University, to offer free blood pressure and BMI screenings and tips on making daily exercise and healthy eating a part of their daily lives. In order to grow this effort and reach more of this great state, we need to help raise money. The Mannings are an incredible asset to Mississippi, and we all need to participate in this effort. Click here to learn more about the Manning Family Fund and how you can help their efforts.