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My heart gets put to the test

Blog | By Charlotte Brook | Feb 02, 2018

I am invited to attend a stress test. As someone who goes to considerable effort to keep stress at arm’s length, it’s not tempting. However, my siblings and I are under pressure to be conscientious offspring of a 62-year-old with a wacky (his term for ‘rare’) heart condition that we have a 50 per cent chance of inheriting. Historically, we’ve proved a pretty unflappable crowd when faced with cardiovascular trauma: remotely following Dad’s progress after his inaugural episode, which saw him airlifted off the Dolomites and into hospital, with ‘In bocca al lupo Dad! 💔 à ❤️ asap’ type texts, or asking after The King (aged rock god checking into Heartbreak Hotel… you get the drift). But it’s doctor’s orders, so I booked in.

Turns out, a stress test is not a test of your stress, nor is it to do with Mark Carney – phew x2. In this case, it’s a test of your heart when put under stress. Which still sounds quite grim, and surely something only port-swilling pensioners should need to undertake? I’m not cholesterolically challenged, I’m a dynamic metropolitan who gathers no moss.

But a stress test (also known as an exercise ECG) is a useful way of identifying coronary disease in people of any age. 

An acquaintance tells me the experience is comparable to the final round of that jewel in the primetime 1990s Saturday night telly crown, Gladiators. I suspect they mean the Travelator segment, when competitors went head-to-head to the top of a steeply pitched moving conveyor belt to the soundtrack of Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust.

And so it is that I am legging it down the Old Kent Road in the rain/dark to try and ‘get running-fit’ the week leading up to my scheduled December appointment at St Thomas’ Hospital, south London. This level of alarm and athleticism, both uncharacteristic, amused my friend and The Oldie’s digital editor, Annabel Sampson. She wondered, if a spritely twentysomething, keen on open-air swimming, bikes, camping and festival-going is sent into a late-night-sprinting panic at the thought of taking a spin on the NHS treadmill, what would an Oldie reader make of it? When we caught up afterwards, I assured her it was nothing to be afraid of. 

Here’s a guide to what happens behind the closed curtain:

1. Arrive at hospital

2. Check into the stress test space (about the size of a small dentist’s room, ie quite cosy for three people, one of whom is sprinting)

3. Get hooked up to the ECG, which will monitor your heart’s electrical rhythms, and is manned by one member of staff. The other controls the treadmill. 

4. Befriend the nurses. If you’re lucky, the staff will be sympathetic. Mine seemed quite impressed by my sports kit (I’m in full sports bra/Air max/high ponytail get-up). ‘Come from the gym?’ Er, no. I got changed at work specially. ‘Most people come in leggings max. And manage in, you know, Crocs and a baggy T shirt.’ I start to feel slightly overdressed. I also apologise-in-advance about my fitness. ‘No. You’re fine. We’ve had all sorts. All. Athletically challenged, we call it.’ 

5. Start walking! To begin with, the walk is flat and slow. Then, you run at an increasingly fast pace up an increasingly steep gradient until your heart rate hits 100 per cent, the optimum rate at which they can take measurements. High enough to see what your heart does when under pressure, not so high that you pass out. 

6. Ask for a soundtrack. I talk Catford property prices with the nurse, but when things start cranking up, I point out that I usually listen to music when I go running – may I put on my headphones? ‘No, but Rebecca? Can we get some tunes?’ Out of the heart-supervising PC and over the cerulean curtain float the dulcet bass notes of Heart FM. No irony knowingly lost here in the cardiovascular unit, we laugh conspiratorially. Well, they do. I’m operating at 40 per cent incline and en route to BPM mecca.

7. Finish, be glad, get results six weeks later. What? Finished? It is done! It’s a Christmas miracle! I am fine! I am the Kate Bush of St Thomas’! Running Up That Hill, no problem.

For more information, visit the British Heart Foundation’s website at www.bhf.org.uk