I'm in a room in Medical Associates. Taped to my chest are electrodes that lead to some freaky machine, on which my vital signs dance across a monitor. And my anxieties loom over me like a helicopter gunship.
This is no emergency. Instead, it's a routine, scheduled stress test. I've had them yearly since my bypass but never gave them a second thought. In fact, I never gave them a first thought. But this time is different.
Maybe with increased age has come increased vulnerability. Maybe the more friends I lose, the more aware I am of everyone's mortality - especially my own. Or maybe I've just read too many Dr. Donohues.
No matter. The fact is my normally unflappable cool was flapping like a button on an outhouse door.
"How long since your bypass?" asks Nurse Stevens.
"Uh, 15 years," I say, realizing my mouth is completely dry.
"All right," she says. And then she continues in one of those metronomic business voices completely devoid of pitch, tone and rhythm. "Now if during the test we see an anomaly, we'll immediately stop the treadmill and the test. Then we'll schedule another test at the hospital "
Once I hear "hospital," my brain shuts down and I only hear dribs and drabs of what she says afterwards, like "atomic" (or maybe it was "nuclear") and "false positives" and all kinds of other things that don't sound at all positive - even falsely positive.
My body may have been in Medical Associates, but my mind sure wasn't. I was in other-worldly creative visualization, and what I was visualizing was my coronary arteries.
When we think of arteries, we think of The Big Guns like the femoral or carotid - the Alaskan Pipeline of the circulatory system. But they bear as much resemblance to coronary arteries as Woody Allen does to Woody Strode: They share the same name, and that's all.
Nope, your coronary arteries, the ones that move oxygenated blood from the heart to the heart, are tiny suckers - smaller in diameter than a pencil lead. Which is why they clog up more easily than the others, and when they do, neither your blood nor you are gonna get around much anymore - if at all.
So I envisioned my coronary arteries, which looked more clogged, clotted and rotted than the Marakech souk.
Did this scare me? You bet your bip! But it scared me in a good way - it scared me straight.
Suddenly I became a Whole New Dope, an Enlightened Dope, a Dope full of resolve and resolution.
If I get through this test OK, I promised myself, I'll cut back - way back - on all my fat consumption. Star of David my heart!
Then an image came to me. It was the Amazon Queen, shaking her finger and reprimanding me for all my dietary transgressions.
"Hey," I said, "I don't eat meat."
"Big-O Deal-O," she snarled. "You devour whole milk and whole casseroles. And how's about cheese? Like cheddar cheese, cream cheese, Munster cheese and let's not forget your favorite salad dressing - blue cheese? Then of course there's your love of mayonnaise, sour cream, ice cream "
"Yeah maybe," I said weakly. "But not too much, I don't think."
"That's right, you don't think," she snapped. "Get real. You eat too much and you weigh too much."
I was about to tell her that at least I've maintained my weight, when she faded away
Now I'm back in the doctor's office, contemplating My New Life, with its low-calorie, high-fiber, low-fat, no-fun diet, when I'm interrupted by Nurse Stevens, handing me a sheet of paper.
"Sign here," she says.
"Um, what is it?" I ask.
"A waiver of liability," she says.
Waiver of liability. A nice name for if I croak on the treadmill, Medical Associates ain't liable for nuttin'.
I sign with a shaking hand.
And then, benumbed, I'm on the treadmill, putting one foot in front of the other, freaky machine on my right, Nurse Stevens and P.A. O'Connor on my left, my fat-laden life behind me, and ahead of me, Lord only knows.
All the world's a stage
Stress tests are run in four-minute stages, each one increasing in speed and incline until one's maximum heart rate is reached - or until Something Goes Wrong (and we're not talking something going wrong with the machine). Max heart rate is calculated according to age, and my lucky number is 163.
I zip through stages one and two, feeling and breathing fine, eyeballing the monitor for any anomalies. Mind you, I've no idea what an anomaly looks like, but it's not for the lack of trying.
On a positive note, the pattern running across the screen looks perfectly regular. Certainly it's not flat-lining, so at worst, I'm still in the game.
I continue movin' and groovin', and before I know it, I'm in stage five.
A minute into it I think, this is it - make or break time. I'm starting to max out on everything - breathing, muscles and pulse. In fact, after two-and-a-half minutes, my pulse hits 163. They tell me I can stop if I want, or if I don't want, we can see if I can finish the stage.
"Why not finish?" I ask myself. I mean, I'm stressed (it is, after all, a stress test), but I'm not gasping or exhausted. Besides, bargain hunter that I am, I know whether I finish or not, the co-pay's the same.
Finally, I finish the stage with a 166 pulse and all systems still go. Now all that remains is seeing how things are in the ole anomaly department.
They pore over a bunch of read-outs and then, with smiles on their faces, tell me everything's just fine. In fact, I did better this stress test than on my last one.
Ha! How do ya like them apples? A mere half-hour ago I thought I was on death's door, and now it appears I've turned back my biological clock.
And if this ain't cause for celebration, I don't know what is.
So how do I celebrate?
Certainly not with me and the Amazon Queen toasting each other with glasses of turnip juice or some other such anti-oxidant-laden swill.
Instead I diddy-bop to Stewart's and snag a pint of Death by Chocolate (which I've just renamed Life by Chocolate).
And what about my low-calorie, high-fiber, low-fat, no-fun diet?
Gimme a break, willya? What with my clean bill of health and new lease on life, I've got a lot more fun times before the party's over.