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The Real Stress Test

Friday, September 19, 2014

By Alissa Butterfass

Many of us CHDers are familiar with the stress test. Often scheduled weeks in advance, we are told to wear comfy clothing and sneakers. We arrive at the hospital or doctor’s office and get hooked up to various machines and breathing masks, and then hop on either a bike or treadmill and start a carefully-monitored exercise session. The speed, tension and/or incline is increased in planned increments and the physicians or technicians take note of how our breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate are impacted by the stress of the exercise.

When we can no longer continue, we put a hand up, the machines are returned to starting positions and we slowly cool down and eventually stop altogether. Once we’ve caught our breath and the wires are detached, we are free to go about our business. Though I often complain about the effort required to coordinate scheduling and go into the city for the test, in truth it is hardly “stressful” for me at all.

This summer I experienced a serious non-cardiac medical issue while away on vacation. I spoke with my physician throughout my vacation and she prescribed medications to control the issue. Still, throughout the week, I grew weaker to the point that in the last few days I basically sat in my hotel room or on the patio reading while my husband entertained the kids sightseeing and at the beach. I managed to go out for dinner with them at night, but needed to drive to and from the restaurant; walking the few blocks was too tiring.

Had I been at home, I would have gone to see my doctor, to the urgent care center or the ER—no doubt. Several times my husband urged me to go to the ER while we were away, but the thought of bringing the kids there with us or leaving them with an unknown sitter, assuming the hotel could have found one for us, was too upsetting to me. I had planned the vacation for months and I wanted my kids to look back on it and just remember all the good times we had that week—not associate it with Mommy going to the hospital.

It might not have been the wisest decision but “Just get me home,” I told my husband repeatedly. “Just get me home safely. Then I’ll go to the hospital.”

When I went to the ER the day after I returned home, I realized just how serious the issue was. Luckily, it can be treated and fixed. My energy level improves every day and the doctors anticipate it will be back to normal soon.

I also realized that while the immediate issue was not a cardiac one, the truth is as a CHDer all medical issues are cardiac issues. At the hospital, the doctor listed for me several options for treating my medical issue—nearly all of which involved medicines or devices often contraindicated for heart patients.

Maybe other people can hear the pros and cons of possible treatments and make a decision on their own, but my immediate response was that this was a decision that the doctor and my cardiologist needed to discuss and come to agreement on. I felt completely unequipped to make a smart and safe decision on my own without my cardiologist’s consultation.

Similarly, while the immediate medical issue was not seemingly a cardiac issue given the symptoms I experienced, it was indeed a “real” stress test for my heart. Several nurses and doctors commented such during my two days in the hospital. I feel very lucky that my heart was strong enough to pass this real-life stress test, make it home safely with my family, and get the medical care I needed. Hopefully from now on all my stress tests will be of the pre-planned, treadmill-walking, vital-sign-measuring, and heavily-monitored type.


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