Guest Opinion

Carrying the Olympic Torch to Honor You

February 02, 2010 03:55 pm Timothy Alford, M.D.

A few days ago, bundled up against the cold in a country not my own, I experienced one of the most inspiring moments of my life. On that day, I had the signal honor of carrying the Olympic flame. I was one of 12,000 torchbearers chosen to relay the flame across Canada to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Family physician Timothy Alford, M.D., of Kosciusko, Miss., celebrates as he runs with the Olympic torch through Strathmore, Alberta.

That flame flared to life last fall in Olympia, Greece. Since then, it has traveled by air, water and land -- and while on land, by means as diverse as foot, ice skates, horseback and wheelchair.

Each torchbearer runs a small section of the relay, which zigzags more than 27,000 miles through big cities and tiny hamlets, bringing Canadians out in droves to celebrate the flame's passage through their towns. The relay will end Feb. 12 when the flame ignites the Olympic Cauldron in Vancouver.

I've been a runner for 32 years, so naturally I was thrilled when one of the relay's sponsors, The Coca-Cola Co., selected me as one of 20 American torchbearers( it would bring to the relay. The Mississippi AFP nominated me, and the AAFP confirmed my nomination. Coca-Cola chose me because I promote a healthy, active lifestyle and encourage civic engagement in my community of Kosciusko, Miss. In the past, the company had been gracious about replacing sugar Coke with healthier drinks, such as bottled water, in school vending machines in our state, so I was glad to say yes to the opportunity.

Running to Honor You

I appreciated being recognized for my civic and health promotion activities, but I knew right away that I wanted my part of the Olympic relay -- my "15 minutes of fame" -- to stand for something bigger than myself. I wanted to run with the Olympic torch in honor of you, my colleagues in family medicine, because you carry the torch of wellness and prevention every day in the work you do.

I know firsthand how hard your work is. I've practiced family medicine in rural Mississippi for more than 25 years. My partners and I grapple with the same problems of running a practice that you do. We care for patients who struggle with chronic diseases -- just like your patients -- and many of those diseases are related to obesity.

Combat Obesity With AIM-HI Materials

If you want to be more effective in promoting fitness among your patients and in your community, the materials in the AAFP's Americans In Motion-Healthy Interventions, or AIM-HI, program can help, and they're free.

AIM-HI offers tools for use in the practice, including a guide to conducting group visits for chronic conditions affected by obesity; patient education materials in English and Spanish; the Ready, Set, FIT! school-based fitness education program; and CME programming for physicians.

The most recent AIM-HI materials are a children's book, F is for Fitness, and a DVD, "Make a Change for Family Fitness." Both products are designed for use in your practice.

In addition, the AAFP is introducing three more children's books about physical activity, nutrition and emotional well-being this summer. The books and DVD have been made possible by grants from the MetLife Foundation, with support from the AAFP Foundation.

Indeed, our state's obesity rate is the highest anywhere in the United States, as is our infant mortality rate, so promoting a healthy lifestyle is perhaps even more critical here. I've found that a good way to set the stage for healthy living is to get involved in community activities and then to use those platforms to push for change. For example, when I served on the local school board, I worked to mandate physical education and revise nutritional standards within Mississippi's public schools.

The medical visit is another platform for change, especially if you set a healthy example for your patients. That's one reason I've been tying on my running shoes just about every morning and getting out there to run, averaging about 30 miles a week. Believe me, people notice. Almost every day a patient comes in and says, "I saw you run, and I know I need to find the time to exercise."

My Date With the Flame

After weeks and weeks of anticipation, I finally ran my lap with the Olympic flame Jan. 19 in the little town of Strathmore, Alberta, near Calgary. Surrounded by cheering town residents, I watched eagerly as the torchbearer with the flame approached. We held our torches high and brought them together, and the flame leaped from his torch to mine.

I knew that would be a special moment, but I honestly wasn't prepared for the rush of emotion that flooded over me. I was part of something significant, something rooted in history -- and I was representing America's family physicians to the world.

During his run in Strathmore, Alberta, Timothy Alford, M.D., passes the Olympic flame to fellow torchbearer Elizabeth Nabel, M.D., former director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Washington.

I stood with my torch while the town's mayor gave a short speech, and then the crowd broke into "O Canada," their national anthem. Thank heavens for the woman behind me, who sang loud and clear so this American could follow her lead!

And then I made my run, equivalent to about one time around a high school track, navigating patches of ice with only one slip. I raised that torch and ran for you, whether you practice in a rural town or a big city -- whether you're active locally or take a broader view, working at the state, national or even international level.

In the face of daunting obstacles, America's family physicians keep on paddling upstream, determined to care for their patients and their communities in a nation that doesn't always seem to respect or reward their efforts. I'm glad the Olympic relay gave me a chance to put down my paddle and pick up the torch to illuminate the amazing work you do.

Timothy Alford, M.D., practices family medicine in Kosciusko, Miss. He is a past president of the Mississippi Academy of Family Physicians Foundation and a past chair of the (then) AAFP Commission on Legislation and Governmental Affairs.