Saturday, July 9, 2016

Victitude: the Sublime Bliss of Stress Tests

As I wrote at the time, I had a stent implanted in my heart two years ago. It was an amazing experience to watch along on the monitor as the surgeon snaked it up my arm and into the valve. A year after insertion, there's vanishingly little chance of further problems. In fact, since my heart's been examined down to the last inch (an expensive and slightly risky procedure unavailable to symptomless people), I have far less heart risk than the average person, who, for all s/he knows, may have been slow-building plaque to the point of blockage*. I know I've got flow, baby!

* - if your doctor recommends Lipitor, please get on it ASAP!

There was an incredible moment when I was given a stress test two months later. After weeks of coddling, and viewing my own chest as terra incognita, I sweated, I worked, I huffed and puffed, and my heart behaved just like a heart. Durable! Not-delicate! I strode out of the medical office like an Olympic champion, far more confident in my body than ever before. I deeply understood what I'd been blessed with, both re: my new lease on life (if this were 1965, I'd be dead) and re: the original equipment itself. I could walk fast up steep hills - without dying, to boot! - and it felt deeply victorious. Since I'm not a competitive person, victory is not a feeling I'd previously known. This was an exultant blend of victoriousness and gratitude. Victitude!

This weekend, I felt some strange sensations in my chest. I emailed my cardiologist, who really hates losing 53 year old patients (particularly yogis with low heart rates and no stress levels), and who therefore rushed me directly into a same-day stress test (after an EKG), and stayed two hours after his normal office hours to watch me take the test in person, biting his lower lip the whole time.

A stress test is a highly controlled attempt to coax a heart attack. It's the only effective way to determine your headroom - i.e. to know whether you're living on the brink. That's awesomely useful and life-saving knowledge to have! Yet it sounds horrifying, because most people have a 1965-ish reaction to the phrase "heart attack". A quick explainer:

A heart attack is nothing more than your heart not receiving the oxygen it needs. If it occurs during a stress test, they spot it on the EKG, they pop a nitro glycerin tablet in your mouth, and things open back up again super-quickly, no harm no foul (though you'd damn well better address the underlying issue ASAP, because you now know that you have no headroom). A heart attack is only a problem if the oxygen deprivation is lengthy. Look at it this way: technically speaking, a sponge diver, holding his breath for three minutes, risks brain death. But there's no need to be so dramatic. When he surfaces to breathe, all is well. Again: no harm, no foul. It's all about duration.

The test once again brought exultation - victitude - as I worked up to the most grueling stage without the slightest problem. It is impossible, even for a veteran writer, to articulate how it feels to know one can frickin' murder ones heart with exertion and have it perform like a champ, after a few hours of uncertainty about the vagaries of this mysterious pump buried in ones chest.

Now, here's the thing I need to tell you (quickly, before the immediacy fades for me, degrading this message into empty words): you should feel exultant, yourself. Even if this vast universe turns out to be rife with life as we know it, it is still exceedingly rare for matter to be invested with the ability to move of its own volition for a few precious decades. Each twitch of a finger is a miraculous defiance of inertia, a complete and utter victitude.

That was the idealist interpretation of my feeling of triumph. The more cynical view is represented by the first joke I ever learned as a child:

Q: Why do you keep hitting yourself in the head with a hammer?

A: Because it feels so good when I stop.

1 comment:

Display Name said...

Thanks again for this post Jim. You just keep em coming. What do you think of the pokemon go madness?

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