Stress tests slurp shit. In only six pride-obliterating minutes they reduce me to a blubbering lump of hyperventilating meat. I readily admit that I’m not a young buck, but 47 isn’t that old. Like Garth Brooks sang, “I’m much too young to feel this damn old.”
(but garth brooks is not in the sad shape we’re in.)
A bit of background, I suffered a heart attack 15 years ago. Thus my need for these yearly shamings.
(they do help make sure we don’t have another heart attack…)
Fine, I acknowledge that they’re a necessary evil. But honestly, how thrilled can I be? Every year I’m reminded of just how out of shape I am. It’s like looking forward to the dentist’s lectures every six years.
However long it is between visits.
Anyway, dear reader, if you’ve never had a stress test, and I highly recommend that you don’t, here’s what it looks like:
(we apologize for the graphic images that follow.)
I strip off my shirt, down to bare flab. Remember being “skins” back in high school P.E.? That’s the humiliation I’m talking about. I stand there staring at the ceiling to avoid looking into the eyes of the technician. She is inspecting the man boobs and fat folds of my torso to locate the precise positions to place the ECG electrode pads.
(note: this is a male perspective. we’re not sure, but female patients likely only have to lift up their shirts while being prepped. not to downplay the humiliation. we’re sure it’s equally distressing.)
The technician then shaves four spots in my fur, giving me a spotty, early-puberty look.
(again, this only applies to guys, and us hirsute ones at that.)
She then preps the bald patches. First, rubbing each spot down with an alcohol pad. Second, scratching the inflamed spots with light sandpaper. Third, another pass with an alcohol pad.
(yes, you read that right, light sandpaper. we’re not sure if it is actually sandpaper. at the very least it is an abrasive pad. it could be the sharp side of velcro. whatever the case, the results are the same: pain, irritation, and a nice raw spot for the alcohol pad to further inflame, adding a deep red to the bald patches. now we look like we’re in the early stages of mange.)
The technician then applies the sticky ECG pads. And to make sure they don’t go anywhere, she tapes them down.
(the adhesive adds the final texture to the faux mange. visual effects makeup artists take note: the end results are quite good.)
Properly demoralized, it’s time to get on the treadmill. When the test starts, the treadmill raises to a slight incline. It moves at a slow, normal walking pace of about 2 mph. No problem.
At the three minute mark, the treadmill raises again and increases to a mall walk speed. This gets the heart pumping. I go from breathing normally to pulling air in through the mouth. Not from the speed so much as the incline. This is a decent workout (for an out of shape, middle-aged gourmand like myself). “I can do this,” I tell myself. But, like Charlie Brown running to kick the ball Lucy has offered, it is all about to go sideways.
Three minutes later, the treadmill goes into middle finger mode. It speeds up to an awkward not-fast-enough-to-be-running-but-too-fast-to-be-walking speed. It elevates to an incline where I have to hold on for fear of falling off the machine. Thing is, holding on also makes the walk/run shuffle I’m doing even more awkward. All I can do is stampity-flop for dear life. The only good in this shituation: there’s no one to see this ludicrous display. Not even the technician. She’s busy monitoring the ECG readout on the computer.
I’m ready to tap out 10 seconds in. My mouth is dryer than Sunday night after an all-weekend, wake-and-bake bender. My pulse is throbbing so hard you can count it by just looking at my neck. This is when everything falls apart. It’s not the physical state that’s so bad. Well, it is, but that’s not the crushing defeat. I mean, everyone, no matter how in shape gets winded when they really push themselves, right? The real hurt comes when I look at the screen and see that I’ve only been going for 6 minutes. My pride shrivels up faster than my testicles when skinny dipping in a frozen lake.
“WTF?!? I can’t wuss out now,” my pride shrieks. I press on for another 20 seconds in a vain attempt to not be as out of shape as I am. Vanity, though, will NEVER beat nature. And by nature I mean my broken-down body. This last-ditch effort pushes me to the point where I’m about to pass out. I’m sure the technician would stop the test but she hasn’t looked over. Remember, she’s busy monitoring the test. If she did glace over, she would see the stop sign faced man straining to not fall off the treadmill, stumbling along in a cross between a terrible Jerry Lewis impersonation and a grand mal seizure.
(why not ask her to stop? well…)
I go to say I’m ready to stop–as nonchalant as I can muster because Pride is one hell of a fighter–but I realize that I’ve pushed myself too far. I’m so out of breath, and my mouth so dry, that saying anything is like pushing a square wheel up Lombard Street.
(that really steep, winding hill in san francisco.)
“I need to stop,” I blark between gulps of breath.
Without looking over, she asks, “Can you go a little longer?”
(at least if we have a heart attack we’re already at the cardiologist.)
All I can do is grunt. On several occasions, I’ve had to jump my feet out beyond the edge of the treadmill’s track so I could stop. Either way, the technician looks over.
“Whoa! Okay. Slowing down now.”
When I’ve stepped off she’s added, “Don’t stop. Keep walking.”
(murder is not an option. if we were physically capable there would be at least one less ECG tech.)
Dutifully I stomp back onto the treadmill. I can’t step back on, that’s too graceful. I’m too far gone. I tromp like an angry rhinoceros until it returns to a state where I can walk again. It then slows to a turtle’s pace, then a snail’s. It holds at the snail’s pace for 10-15 seconds before stopping.
(merciful odin on his throne, we’re done!)
At this point, all I can think about is gulping as much water as I can. I have an 18oz Yeti Rambler bottle that I carry with me for just this moment. But I can’t get it yet. I tried to leave the treadmill to get a drink. Once. The admonition I got was biblical. I don’t know what it is about remaining on the treadmill, but it’s serious. There are only two times you can leave the treadmill. One, when the test is completely over, i.e. the treadmill has come to a complete stop and the technician has taken the second blood pressure measurement. Two, if you have a heart attack and fall off. Faintness, lack of breath, and Mojave dry mouth are not recognized conditions. Though, ironically, they are recognized symptoms of a heart attack.
(the lack of sympathy might be because we look fairly young and healthy. if we looked like the feeble old coot we actually are things might be different. maybe.)
The technician gets her final readings and removes the electrodes. Finally, I’m allowed down. I fall in the direction of my water bottle. That’s the only way I can get moving at this point. The technician says something about getting dressed, the doctor will be in shortly, go fuck yourself, blah blah blah. I can’t hear because I’m chugging water. Honestly, even if I could hear I’m not listening. I survived. That’s all I care about.
(but it’s not over.)
Doctors can’t help but shame you for not doing enough. With stress tests, it comes when the doctor is looking at the ECG and murmurs, “Hmmm…” disapprovingly.
“Only 6 minutes. We need to get that up to 9 or 10.”
We. Right. We’ll get right on that.
I’m unhealthy. I’m out of shape. I get it. Shaming me is exactly NOT the motivation that is going to get me there. There meaning staying on the treadmill until the 9- or 10-minute mark, which I imagine is a full run at an incline of 89 degrees.
“Next time,” I promise.
(promise just like we promised our dentist we’d floss twice a day the last visited 20 years ago.)