Inside the County and City of Denver Public Works garage, Brian Schroeder has become a self-proclaimed evangelist for wellness programs, encouraging his coworkers — mostly men — to go to the doctor regularly.
Brian understands their hesitation. A year and a half ago, the 62-year-old stood in many of their shoes, doubting the need for regular checkups offered through Denver’s innovative wellness program.
His employer, the City and County of Denver, designed a program to improve the health and well-being of employees.
People enroll and earn points for specific activities such as an annual health assessment, annual wellness visit, and preventative care opportunities like tobacco cessation or weight loss programs. Employees are also given the chance to attend community events, fitness activities and educational classes. Earning a specific number of points results in a premium reduction for the employee.
“We had a person at the time there that was in charge of that, and she bugged me for years to get into it,” Brian said.
When he was promoted to a supervisor role, Brian’s colleague again encouraged him to take advantage of the wellness checks offered by his employer as he prepared to lead a team, and he finally agreed. He underwent blood work as part of his wellness check with a physician, and as he was starting his shift one afternoon, a phone call changed the course of his life.
“Parked my vehicle, was sitting there, the phone rang, and it was the doctor. And he said, "Well, Brian, I have some very, very bad news for you. He said, "From what the biopsy results are," he said, "you have anywhere from four months to a year to live if we don't do anything,” Brian said.
Brian had no symptoms, but quickly learned of the risks.
Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer among men in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Out of every 100 American men, about 13 will get prostate cancer during their lifetime, and about 2 to 3 men will die from prostate cancer, the CDC reports, with age as the most common risk factor. The older a man is, the greater the chance of getting prostate cancer.
“It is the absolute, quintessential story behind why we have wellness programs in place. People do resist the wellness checks. Sometimes it's privacy concerns. Sometimes it's time constraints. It can be you're young and bulletproof, or you're a little bit older and you're afraid,” said Sandra Crews, a health strategies consultant with UnitedHealthcare, Brian’s health insurer.
“Thank goodness that the timing was right this time, and it saved Brian's life. Wellness programs work,” Crews added.
According to Crews, one in three people find out they have an underlying condition in a wellness exam. A 2018 UnitedHealthcare wellness survey found that 53% of employees in wellness programs reported noticing an improvement in their health, 67% reported reduced bodyweight, and 56% took fewer sick days. Above all, nearly 90% of people employees surveyed said mindfulness has an impact on their health and well-being.
Crews credits Denver with being "ahead of the game" when it comes to wellness programming by offering mindfulness classes, biometric screenings, an array of fitness opportunities like yoga and hiking. Brian has now made it his mission to encourage his fellow mechanics to take advantage of the wellness exams.
His co-worker, Robert “Shorty” Jurgens, a lead heavy mechanic, became one of many people changed by Brian’s persistence. In a prostate cancer screening, Jurgens’ doctors tracked elevated PSA levels, and he’s now under close watch.
“It was a scare, and Brian was the one that encouraged me to go do it,” Robert said. “I don't know if I could have a positive attitude like he has, going through all the stuff that he's been going through, so he's an encouragement.”
After many surgeries, Brian is happy to report he’s cancer-free. Surgical complications will force Brian to soon retire earlier than expected, but he remains optimistic, in part because he now has a new mission to carry him forward.
“You know, I'm thankful every day that I'm still alive. So, how can you not be happy? The sun comes up every day there and it's a new day. I try to spread that message everywhere,” Brian said. “I will continue as long as I'm here, telling them all, 'Go get checked. Just do it.' With men, get over the stigma. You got a couple of minutes of discomfort for the rest of your life. It's a heck of a tradeoff.”