January 9, 2024 | By Gerry Wagner
A career in the plumbing and HVAC/R trades has its rewards, but your health and financial security should also be a priority.
As tradespeople, we need to take better care of ourselves, both physically and financially.
I’m at an age where I find myself saying, “I’m too old for this X+*#” quite a bit.
I learned the hard way the wear and tear the HVAC trade can have on your body.
No one told us as young apprentices and journeymen to be careful, to take care of ourselves and to think about the future. And if they did, I’m not sure I would have listened.
I started having very serious joint and muscle pain when I hit my forties, and when I say serious, I mean SERIOUS!
I won’t bore you with all the nasty details, but the condition was putting my day-to-day movement in jeopardy, as well as my ability to make a living. I was in constant pain.
My cousin, who is in public relations for hospitals, got me an appointment with a world-renowned doctor who had actually been involved in keeping SARS out of the U.S. in 2003.
This doctor’s modus operandi was to take a patient’s blood and dissect its content in a way the average blood test never does. He felt the answers were always in the blood work.
Well, as it turned out, I had a very high level of lead in my blood.
Where the heck was that coming from?
I was living in New York state at the time, and we got our water from a private well on our property. The New York Department of Health had our water tested with concerns that the lead was coming from our drinking water; a potential hazard not only for me but for our entire surrounding community.
Nope, the water tested fine.
My doctor started asking me questions about my job, what I did and how I did it.
I told him that I was in the HVAC industry and specialized in hydronic heating systems.
He asked if I used leaded solder when joining copper pipes together, and I did. I was primarily a boilerman back then, and lead-free solder was only required in plumbing, not HVAC.
I could see the proverbial light bulb go off over the doctor’s head. He found the source of the lead in my blood. It was from inhaling the fumes of the leaded solder!
No one ever told me to wear a mask as I soldered…no one! You can bet that almost 20 years prior to COVID, after learning of this hazard, I was wearing a mask when I would work with leaded solder.
A more permanent adverse health issue resulting from my time in the trade is the limited mobility of my hands as a result of using them as a hammer, a wedge and a forklift for decades.
As I worked, I never thought of the potential damage I was doing to my hands, but now I wish I had taken better care of these most precious tools.
I took up guitar playing later in life, much later. I needed something that was strictly for “my head” that wasn’t at all work related. I always wanted to learn to play guitar, so in my forties I gave it a shot.
Like most things I get into, obsessed with some might say, I jumped into the deep end big time! There was a point when I owned over 70 instruments and took lessons for about seven years.
Well, now at the ripe old age of 62, my fingers have limited mobility, and when I wake up in the morning my left hand is in pain for hours until I can work through it.
Look, I was never Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen so to the greater music community this is no great loss, but to me it is a hardship, one I think I could have avoided or at the very least lessened. Now, is that the result of using my hands for years as if they were Craftsman tools, or just a typical 62-year-old with arthritis? Admittedly, probably both.
My most recent health crisis came just this past June 3rd (2023). I had a MASSIVE heart attack that came within a minute of taking my life.
My family has no history of heart issues. We die of cancer, not heart attacks. Doctors and nurses have always complimented me on my blood pressure numbers, so heart attack was not on my radar.
That said, I had a couple clues days before that I ignored, but in retrospect were clear clues as to what was to come.
The day before, I was in Kelowna, B.C. filming with Todd Talbot, the former host of the popular HGTV show Love It or List It. Talbot was building a vacation home and my company had provided the HVAC equipment for the project. I was there to film an interview where I would speak about the equipment and why we chose it for this particular application.
Well, if you know anything about TV and movie filming, it’s a lot of waiting around for a few minutes of actual filming. I had decided to take a walk during some down time and when I got back to the house I was gassed!
I couldn’t catch my breath, and I felt like I might pass out. In the moment, I chalked it up to me being a 62-year-old fat guy, and it finally caught up to me. In a few minutes it passed, and I moved on.
That night, I woke up in the middle of the night with incredible discomfort, like a weight on my chest, and I was having difficulty breathing. I was moments away from calling for help when it passed as quickly as it had come on.
Once again, I just figured it was indigestion. I ate too much sushi the night before.
Well, all this was a precursor to 7 a.m., Saturday, June 3, 2023, when my life almost ended due to a 99% blockage in the left side of my heart—what is commonly known as the “widow-maker.”
OK, here is the point.
As tradespeople, and especially those of us who are men in the trades, we tend to ignore our own body’s clues that something may be wrong.
The common, “it will pass” and “I’ll work through it” scenario might just kill us if we don’t stop and address our own needs.
Everything I have addressed here relates to physical health, but our mental health is often the most commonly ignored concern.
I’m 32 years CLEAN & SOBER.
I will save this subject for another article because it deserves specific attention and requires more space than this article will afford, but let me tell you from personal experience, our mental health is as important as our physical health and requires our attention and vigilance, because the consequences of ignoring signs of addiction and other mental health issues can end our life as quickly as a heart attack but in a less merciful manner.
What caused my heart attack? It’s hard for doctors to say for sure, but it could be the result of my behaviour with drugs and alcohol as a young person that came back to take its toll.
Dollars and Sense
Whether we want to admit it or not, our financial health is also as important as our physical health. I have a couple buddies who are involved with what was originally called Contractor 2000 and is now known as Nexstar.
As I understand it, Nexstar is a trade mentoring group that offers trade business owners guidance in keeping one’s good physical health and achieving financial goals.
They realize that, much like an athlete, tradespeople often have a limited time to achieve financial goals before their health becomes jeopardized.
I think that is a brilliant observation that most of us don’t realize until it’s too late.
Another advocate for tradespeople’s financial well-being is Ellen Rohr, president at Zoom Drain, as well as an author and motivational speaker. The first time I met Ellen was in the early 1990s at a national convention for a radiant floor product manufacturer.
Ellen had just published a book about the importance of having a proper “business plan,” and when she said that HVAC business owners should be expecting to earn six figures, well, I heard an audible gasp come over the room.
The fellow I was with, a second-generation plumber and HVAC business owner, practically fell off his chair. My reaction was to immediately go out and buy Ellen’s book!
Hey, here’s the deal.
In this crazy, unpredictable, volatile world, now more than ever we need to take care of our physical and financial well-being.
You don’t want to be the guy who wakes up to this when it’s too late. <>