TRUCK driver Chris Blanchard can laugh at the memory now but in the year 2000 his mates in the industry called him Captain Snooze.
They had good reason because at every opportunity he would climb into his sleeper cab at truck stops and grab 40 winks before hitting the road again hauling freight thousands of kilometres across Victoria, Queensland and NSW.
"Off duty I seemed to feel lethargic most of the time", recalls Chris, 43, a mechanic by trade who drives for the family haulage business based in Grafton.
"There was this general feeling of overall tiredness. I just didn't feel good. I felt generally low."
At the time he put this down to depression associated with the recent break-up of his six-year marriage, but when the feeling persisted he sought advice from his GP.
Blood tests revealed that Chris, who had played hockey for years and was of above average fitness, was storing higher than normal levels of iron in his body, which could have posed serious long-term health risks.
Further tests confirmed the diagnosis that Chris was suffering from iron overload - haemochromatosis - the most common genetic disorder in Australia.
His level of serum ferritin, the key indicator of the level of iron stored in the body, was approaching 600, far higher than the normal range among men of between 20 and 300 micrograms per litre.
Chris was totally unaware that he was absorbing far more iron than was necessary from his diet - and the body has no way of getting rid of the excess.
Even worse he had no idea of what might be the long-term health effects.
"The tests explained a few things," says Chris, who drives a fully laden 48-tonne truck delivering timber poles to power distributors throughout the eastern states.
"Suddenly there was a reason why I had a lack of go, a complete lack of oomph. Some evenings after work I'd just sit in a chair and do nothing, not even turn on the TV. I'd just sit and wonder why I felt so low."
In Chris' case treatment required donating blood - 500ml at a time - initially once a month for four months until his iron levels dropped to normal and, on the advice of his doctor, a fairly dramatic change in diet.
Hamburgers, a long-time favourite, were replaced with chicken and his intake of beer and bottled drinks high in vitamin C was drastically reduced.
Now, thanks partly to his diet-conscious wife, Joanne, salads are regularly on the menu and the pantry is bare of breakfast cereals high in iron.
And an evening out at a steak restaurant has become a rarity, where once it would have been commonplace in Chris' lifestyle. But Chris, who now has a serum ferritin level of about 150, is happy with the lifestyle trade-offs and knows the outcome could have been different.
Left unchecked, excess iron stored in organs and joints can lead to serious health risks including cirrhosis, liver cancer and a range of other ongoing health problems.
But with early detection haemochromatosis can be treated and is no barrier to a happy and successful life.
And with interests ranging from writing a regular column in Big Rigs to landscape photography and weekends spent with Joanne and four-year-old son Alex that's exactly what Chris Blanchard is enjoying.
Captain Snooze is wide awake to his new future.
What is it?
HAEMOCHROMATOSIS, or inherited iron overload disorder, is the most common genetic disorder in Australia.
It causes the body to absorb excess iron, which builds up in the organs and joints over many years and eventually becomes toxic.
Early symptoms include joint pains, fatigue, weakness and sexual dysfunction. If untreated it can lead to serious and potentially fatal symptoms.
The inaugural Australian Hemochromatosis Week is being held from August 13-19.
The purpose is to raise community awareness of the condition and improve the rate of early diagnosis.
Free information sessions have been held around the country the next are:
Sunshine Coast - Sunday, August 19, 2pm at Sunshine Beach Surf Club.
Melbourne - Saturday, August 25, 1pm at North Melbourne Community Centre.
Gold Coast - Saturday, August 25, 10am at Elanora Public Library.
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