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What Do Chest Pains During Exercise Mean?: My Most Humiliating Medical Moment EVER. [Topless Treadmill Running]

Posted Nov 26 2013 1:07am


 This is totally true. Scares the everloving crap out of me. 

Topless treadmill running has never been on my fitness bucket list but then neither was being a pro NFL cheeleader for a day or doing crunches on an underwater produce scale in an ice-cold pool for half an hour and I ended up doing both of those. So. So maybe I shouldn’t have been so shocked when last Friday morning found me frantically chugging up a treadmill set to 14% incline, unsure of which was more painful – the lack of sports bra or any supportive top or all the wires snaking out of me.

I should back up. Like all the way to last Thursday. I went in for my usual doctor’s check up – It was time, I needed a flu shot and I had some questions about folic acid absorption that I had after a rousing discussion with Deb on my post about being freaking depressed all the time. (Short version: Apparently there’s a genetic marker – of which I have half of – that impedes folic acid metabolism and can manifest as depression. It’s called the MTHFR genes, which aptly sounds out like Motherf****** in my head for some obscene and hilarious reason, in case you’re curious.) Plus I have a thing for paper dress fashion. I blame all those Barbie paper dolls I grew up loving on. (And the ones with the rub-on patterns? Remember those?!?)

Anyhow, back to my doctor’s appointment. Listening to my heart she asked if anyone has ever told me I have a murmur. I nodded. It was years and years ago and I hadn’t thought much of it because I was told (correctly) that up to 80% of people will have a murmur at some point in their lives and it generally doesn’t mean anything sinister.

Then she asked, “Do you have chest pain?”

Um, OF COURSE I DO. I’m the BEST HYPOCHONDRIAC EVER. HELLO. All I really said was, “Why yes! After I exercise, actually.”

Since moving from sea level to 5400 feet above sea level, I’ve been having chest pain when I work out. It only happens when I’m doing something aerobic and generally doesn’t kick in until about 30 minutes into the run or whatever. But there have been a few times where it’s been so intense I’ve had to stop my workout and lay down. But I figured that’s just what happens when you move up an oxygen-poor mountain. Plus I told my mom, a nurse, and she thought this was just a new iteration of my old friend Panic. So I tried not to worry about it and just take it a little easier with the cardio.

My doctor listened, nodded, and said, “I’d still like you to get it checked out.” And before I could say boo I was laying on my back getting my first-ever ECG. Which, if you’ve never had one, involves getting a bunch of wires taped to your chest and then being told not to talk while an antsy 4-year-old yells in your face, “Why you wearing no shirt, Mommy? Why you beeping, Mommy? What is wrong with you, Mommy?!” and of course “OPEN MY FRUIT BAR WOMAN.”

The ECG was fine but after listening to my heart again, my doctor handed me an appointment sheet to schedule a “stress echo.” When I asked her if I could workout between now and the test, she told me I wouldn’t have a chance because she was getting me the next available opening at the cardiac center.

Up until then I was decently calm but her alarm made me alarmed and so I obediently found a sitter for Jelly Bean and trotted myself over to the world-famous cardiac treatment hospital in Boulder, first thing in the morning.

“You are too young to be here,” were the first words out of the tech’s mouth when I walked in the room. Haha  I laughed. “No seriously,” he said. “You don’t have coronary heart disease.”

“Of course I don’t,” I answered him. “I eat healthy. I workout. I have no family history of it.”

“And yet that’s why you’re here,” he pointed out. “Because that’s what a stress echo is looking for.” Before I could protest, he told me to take my top off and handed me a little “shirt” that looked like two cotton bibs attached by a few snaps.

“Bra too?” I asked. He nodded before leaving the room so I could change. By the time he came back in my nerves had ratcheted up about 100 levels and so I did what I always do when I’m nervous and embarrassed: I started talking a lot. As he started attaching the little stickies to my chest that would later get hooked up to the wires, I nattered on about Colorado and fitness and my kids and oh for the love of little green apples this is awful. Awk. Ward. 

As he worked his way up my chest, I started to freak out that I was flashing the whole place. Boobs ahoy! Is this what it’s like getting a mammogram? Calm down, it’s a medical thing! These people see stuff like boobs all the time. They probably don’t even notice anymore. Seriously? How would they not notice? My mom always says a body part is a body part. But my mom also told me that Jello was health food so clearly that broad can’t be trusted. But hey since I’ve had children my boobs flee to my armpits whenever I lay on my back so it’s practically full coverage, right? I’m like Lady Godiva! Except instead of long, flowing locks covering my bits I’ve got long, flowing… skin! Aw crap, how long has my tummy been pooching out over the top of my running capris like that? Wait, am I really worried about whether I have a muffin top when there’s a possibility I might have some horrible heart defect? I could die right now! My children will be orphans! Which is what they get for ruining my boobs! No, that’s a terrible thought! Stop that! Stop being vain! Suck in your stomach!! Do I look fat in this bib? SHUT UP CHARLOTTE.  

I’m telling you guys Naked Charlotte is a pain in the butt. Or chest.

The two young, male techs were doing their absolute best not to look at me and to act normal – which I appreciated, especially given my propensity to act anything but normal. “How do you feel?” the first guy asked me, for the 17th time. “100% fine,” I answered for the 18th time. “I’m totally fit and healthy!” I crowed, trying to convince everyone in the room of this truth, simply by saying it. (Which is basically the whole premise of The Secret right? Why did I not write that book?)


 Yesiree Bob, this was me. Except it was me that was topless and two dudes in lab coats. And I wasn’t nearly as chipper as this old guy. Who, let’s be honest, probably kicked my trash on this test. 

As they loaded me and all my snaky wires onto the treadmill I began to get performance anxiety. I’d just told them all I was like, super fit! What if I failed? This was, after all, A TEST. And tests can be failed. But not by me! I never fail tests! “What do I have to get to pass?” I asked him, eyeing all the computers and wishing I knew what they meant.

“You’ll be fine,” the second dude assured me. “We’re used to old people up here so anything you do will be better than that.”

“I should hope so,” I said, sizing him up. He had that small, wiry build that so many Coloradans have thanks to running ultras up 14,000-ft peaks for funzies and whatnot. He could pass this test. Running backwards. On one leg. I was sure of it.

“Although we do sometimes get those guys – you know the ones that are like 75 and been cross country skiiers their whole lives? They kill this test,” Guy #1 added.

“Great,” I muttered.

“You’ll be fine,” Guy #2 said again as #1 chirped from the other side of the room, again, “There’s no way you have coronary heart disease! Just saying!”

“So what does the chest pain feel like, exactly, when you get it?” Guy #2 asked as he fiddled with the machines.

“Well, it feels tight, like pressure. I feel weak and shaky. And sometimes I get really nauseous.”

He perked up at that. “You barf?”

“Um, I have,” I confirmed.

At that both guys sprung into action. “DO NOT VOMIT ON OUR MACHINES.” I laughed nervously. “NO WE’RE NOT KIDDING. DO NOT PUKE ON US.” They kept eyeing me as they arranged garbage cans around what I’m sure was very expensive and very moisture intolerant equipment. “IF YOU EVEN FEEL LIKE PUKING…”

“I won’t! I promise!”

“How do you feel now?” Guy #1 asked for the 19th time. “DO YOU FEEL NAUSEOUS?”

Chagrined, I looked at my feet. I’m the best hypochondriac ever, remember? Talk about barf enough and I will start to feel nauseated. So… ”Let’s just do this.”

Guy #2 turned on the treadmill, saying, “This is just like every other treadmill you’ve ever been on.”

“There’s no TV,” I joked, starting to walk at a painfully slow pace.

“Look out the window. HOW DO YOU FEEL NOW? ARE YOU GOING TO BARF?”

And then it hit me. No, not barf. But the realization that I still didn’t have my sports bra on and was now fully on a moving treadmill wearing nothing but burp rags flapping in the breeze. “Wait,” I gasped, “I have to run with um, no….” I gestured to my poor tired tatas.

“Oh yes. That’s everyone’s favorite part,” Guy #1 answered dryly.

Now he gets a sense of humor? At that point I realized that despite nerves, nipples and nausea I was just going to have to grit my teeth and get through this. So I sighed, looked out the stupid window and tried to channel my nervous energy into my feet.

Do you know how hard it is to run on a treadmill that’s constantly getting faster and steeper? While someone takes your blood pressure and measures your oxygen levels every two minutes? While your poor nips get all chafed because your paper bib has a thread count of like 10? DO YOU?? As I panted and watched my heart rate climb – the point is to get your heart as high as you can stand it to see how your heart performs under stress – my mind took off again.

Why is Body Glide not on the list of instructions of what to bring with you to this test? Couldn’t I at least have band-aids? What do more well-endowed women do? And what about all those sweet elderly women who have to take this test? What do they do with their elderly nips – tuck them into the waistband of their pants? Tie them in a knot? Tie them in a bow? Throw them over their shoulder like a continental soldier? Maybe this is a niche market and I should invent a bra that can be worn during ECGs! I’ll be rich!!

My entrepreneurial reverie was interrupted by Guy #2 asking me, “How are you feeling now?” Can’t talk anymore. Thumbs up. Big, hopefully convincing, grin. “You going to puke?” Vigorous head shake “no”. That makes me nauseous.

Guy #1 asks, “How much longer do you think you can run? Five more minutes?”

I’m seeing spots. Five more seconds maybe.

Guy #2: “Do you feel the chest pain yet?”

I look at the screen – I’m past my “predicted” max heart rate. I shake my head. No chest pains. Stupid healthy chest! Now I just look like a hypochondriac tool. Which… I am.

Guy #1: “Okay, when you feel like you absolutely can’t go any more, I’m going to need you to jump off the treadmill, run across the room to the exam table, hop up and lay down on your left side so I can do the ultrasound pics of your heart while it’s still beating really hard.”

Guy #2: “Got it?”

Oh I got it. I’m going to complete the biggest athletic achievement of my life, jump off, drop to my knees and rip my shirt off, waving it above my head in heart-healthy victory. THIS IS MY BRANDY CHASTAIN MOMENT . Nike will name a sports bra after me! After I invent one with with no front, sides or backs! Okay, so Nike will name a set of pasties after me! Whatever! I will inspire young girls and make adult bibs with snaps the must-have fashion accessory of the year! I will… faint?


To add insult to ignominy, I stumbled off the treadmill muttering about possibly barfing and the next thing I knew the two techs had got me on the table, on my left side and the first guy was ultrasounding the heck out of my heart. I watched it pump happily along as I tried to regain my breath and not vomit. It almost seemed to be taunting me with its healthfulness.

“So, what’s the verdict?” I asked lightly, trying to pretend that I hadn’t just had one of the absolute most humiliating experiences of my life.

“Not even so much as a single irregularity!” Guy #2 called to me. Fan-freaking-tastic.

“Well, I’m not the doc,” the first guy answered me, “but it all looks really good.” He added, “Let me put it this way, if I saw anything that was remotely off, we wouldn’t let you leave the hospital. And you’re free to go.”

“Okay,” I sighed. I felt lame but at least now I knew my heart is Superwoman.

“But,” he added, “you should still call your doctor on Monday to get the official results.” Then he pointed to something on the screen. “Because while your heart function all looks totally normal, there is an unusual amount of fluid in the sac surrounding your heart.”

“Wait, WHAT?” The last thing you should do is give a hypochondriac something legit to worry about. That’s like telling Kanye “Yeezus” West that Jesus called him and left a message, if you could just find the paper you wrote it down on. Shiz will fly.

“Have you been sick recently?” he asked. “Because there is a lot of fluid around your heart and that could be causing the pain. Just something to think about.”

And with that he stood up. “You can put your shirt back on.”


Have any of you ever had a chest murmur? Chest pains when you exercise? What did you do for it? Anyone else ever had to do a stress echocardiogram? And help me feel better – what’s the most embarrassing medical procedure you’ve ever had?

P.S. My doc still hasn’t called me back so I haven’t heard the “official” results of my test yet. Or what that fluid is all about. But honestly I don’t really care because at least I get to wear a shirt again.

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