Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Recovery Week 6: The Stress Test

It's been about six weeks since I suffered a heart attack during a trail race.

Even when I was still in the hospital, the cardiologists told me that six weeks was a key moment in time. Why? Here's what I recall being told:

  • For most people, any post-attack healing of the heart muscle is completed in six weeks
  • Cardiac rehab will be useful until about six weeks, when I would probably be totally bored with it and ready to exercise on my own (please note: it was made clear to me that this was based on my 35+ years of steady exercise, my relatively young age, and my overall health - cardiac rehab for others who have different circumstances might last for a few months - please don't generalize to your situation, talk to your doctor).
  • A cardiac stress test would likely be scheduled at six weeks to assess how I was doing, and to help chart the course for the next several months or even for the next few years. 
It would seem that the predictions were coming true. I was certainly bored with cardiac rehab - that's no knock on the facility or the staff, but flopping around on an exercise bike or elliptical machine at well below my usual physical intensity level for 20 minutes wasn't really engaging me, and I was rather tired of the 20 min. drive each way as well. 

Plus, the stress test was scheduled!

I looked forward to that test and dreaded it all at once. I didn't know exactly what to expect, but secretly I hoped I'd be a total outlier, passing with flying colors (they told me that I'd be on the machine between 6 and 15 minutes - I planned on at least 20 because, as I've noted before, I'm a stubborn mule). But to be honest I was also worried and anxious:
  • What if something bad happened in this first instance of really testing my heart? Another heart attack? Having my druthers, I'd rather not go through that again.
  • What if what they found was that I'd not healed at all? 
  • Worse yet, what if the blockage in my left main - called the Widow Maker - had gotten more severe and I needed immediate surgery? Yikes!
  • What if I turned out to be a total wimp and couldn't even put forth a minimal six minute effort?
Well, whatever was going to happen was, I guess, going to happen. Wait, is that some kind of tao concept? Hmm.

So, I reported to the cardiac clinic early yesterday morning and got hooked up. They placed me on a cold table and taped at least 8 electrical leads to my chest, and plugged in an IV for injecting me with "image enhancer" (which sounded like some kind of miracle cure for public relations disasters, but was actually just a sort of milky looking dye that apparently would make it easier for the ultrasound technician to get a clear picture of what was going on with my heart).
Source: www.glogster.com
Then they strapped me into some pedals, took some baseline measures, and got the thing whirring. Here is a photo taken during my stress test:
Well, maybe not exactly, but that's more or less what the darned thing was. In fact, there were no handles to grab (that would have helped), and the machine I was hooked up to had big, strappy pedals on it, but it did involve lying down and trying to exercise in a similar position. There was one really odd thing about it too: the pedal spindles on the machine were located closer to my heels than to the balls of my feet, which meant I'd be pedaling without any real way to engage my calf muscles. For the first couple of minutes, I kept making the machine go CLUNK-CLUNK because I would naturally use my calf muscles and thus jerk the pedals around wildly. I kept apologizing. Yeesh.

I don't recall where they started me exactly, but in essence I was instructed to pedal at 65 rpm (that's much slower than I'm used to with my cycling, which is typically 90-100 rpm) and they would add resistance every two minutes in increments that increased my effort by 25 watts until I hit the target heart rate (over 142 but under 168) or felt too fatigued. The first level I recall clearly was when it hit 175 watts, which I think was at 10 minutes. Before that, it all felt relatively easy - if extremely clumsy. I was just pedaling easily and chatting with the nurse about his upcoming 10 mile race. But when the machine hit 175 watts I started having to push pretty hard (with the weird spindle position, I was really only using my quadriceps so I could not spin in full circles, just stomp down hard on each down-stroke, which was a really unnatural movement). I started sweating. A lot. They turned on a fan. Full blast. Didn't help much. 

At 200 watts I was breathing harder, and starting to watch the clock a bit more closely, although my heart rate was still only about 115 beats per minute. At the 14 minute mark the machine hit 225 watts, and that's when I finally felt the burn for the first time in a long time, at least since before my heart attack. I was huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf, and sweating like a maniac. The nurse was pumping me with the dye and the technician was sliding the ultrasound wand all over my chest and snapping digital photos. It was a flurry of activity. Meanwhile, I was going anaerobic fast, and breathlessly told them so. I didn't think I could handle 250 watts, and it became clear I was correct as my rpm slowly dipped from 65 to 63 to 59 to 57 ... and then as my legs locked up they shut me down at 16 minutes. My max heart rate had been only 136.

I partly felt like a failure for not hitting my 20 minute goal and for being unable to get my heart rate up any higher. Yeah, I know that's stupid, but those old competitive fires don't go out easily. 
Source = http://dailyanimeart.com/2014/07/11/gray-defeats-silver-wendys-plan-fairy-tail-392/gray-must-win-against-silver/
It took me about two-three minutes to get my breathing back down and my heart rate back to 66 - until then my chest was really thumping away. But otherwise I felt pretty good, burning quad muscles aside. They gave me some water and a towel, and sent me away. I met up with my wife in the waiting area, and we realized that we had an hour before I would see the cardiologist to go over the results. It was a nice day, so we went outside and walked together for about 35 minutes, just chatting. I was probably chatting too much, because I felt the flush of a hard effort (yay!) but also the anxiety of finding out the results (gulp!).

The results: We ambled into the cardiologist's examining room and sat in eager silence. The doctor entered moments later, and was all smiles. He went over the results. While it was true that part of my heart muscle had been damaged by the attack, the overall measurements of my heart were within the normal range. My ejection fraction was 55%, and it increased with effort during the test, a very good sign. The overall flow through my coronary arteries was good, and my cholesterol levels had dropped considerably due to the medications. Things were looking good - at least I thought so.

Then the doctor said words that I'd been longing to hear, such as "this is looking good" and "it's time to resume your active lifestyle". Of course there were also words that I knew were coming but did not enjoy hearing, such as "don't even think about running a marathon" and "don't do anything crazy, like racing hard". Like I said, I knew that would be the instructions, but of course I wish it were different. Still, I'll keep saying that I'm just glad to be around to complain about all of this.

And I don't have to go to cardiac rehab anymore!

So I've got the green light start jogging a bit, and work up to an hour (or even a little more) of gentle effort aerobic exercise. I will probably never race all-out again, competing is now a thing of my past. Sigh.

Still, I'll definitely take it. I have to celebrate the good things, and look forward instead of backward. I have a lot to live for. Hell, we all do, if we just take the time to realize it. 

Happy running, whatever your pace. I just ask that you be kind when you pass me, or frankly when you pass any other runner/jogger/walker out there. We're all in this together, right?

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