Stress Is Keeping Me Alive

I love a good rousing physical, standing on scales and joking about my shoes weighing forty pounds, having my lungs heard, being told to cough, thumb wrestling the thermometer with my tongue. I love the banding of my arm and the pump-pump-pump of the vulcanized compressor, the doctor shuffling pages to see if I’m due for a tetanus vaccine. Even the gloved finger slipping into my reluctant caboose—not so bad.

blood pressure

Apart from the odd Bacillus infection putting me on the no fly list, the news is usually OK. Offering a sturdy, “Never felt better, Doc!” and having perfectly normal blood pressure quickly gets me out the door. I like to head to the Deli across the street for a celebratory egg sandwich on a bagel. “Large coffee?” “Oh, thanks for asking. Don’t mind if I do!”

I was born in a 40-bed hospital in central Maryland. There were three people on the graveyard shift—a doctor, a nurse, and someone to “gas the mothers.” For the past 25 years I’ve had access to “Baltimore” doctors—where even the nobodies have renown. It’s part of the old industrial and manufacturing legacy. Long after the factory shuts down, the sickness is just getting started. And Baltimore—like Cleveland and Pittsburgh—has some fantastic medical campuses.

Naturally, I was nervous about moving to the Deep South of high john root, hung syllables, and country smarts. True, nearby Charleston had been the richest city in America in the 1750s, but most of the “industry” in Aiken County had ceased operations when slavery ended. My hopes were buoyed by the presence of a nuclear weapons plant a few miles away. Plutonium and Tritium, Yay!

As you might guess, Aiken County has one of the highest cancer rates in the nation. Although I was probably too old to get cancer from living here, I’d benefit greatly from the years of environmental contamination that had sickened everyone else. The best doctors gravitate to the worst patients.

Eager to make new connections, I boldly signed up for an exam. I told the doctor I was feeling a lot of stress about the Senate confirmation hearings—that my blood was boiling. “Let’s take your blood pressure.” Dr. Besson was immediately alarmed. “We’ve got a serious problem here.”

“Problem? Serious?”

“Your blood pressure is 110 over 70. It’s very normal, and it shouldn’t be. Look at you, you’re on the obesity spectrum, and I can still smell the tequila you must have drunk last night. Your blood pressure should be through the roof.” He pronounced roof like ruff. Like the way dogs talk. For some reason, that stuck with me.

Dr. Besson pasted my chest with leads and performed an electro-cardiogram. “I found the trouble,” he said. “Trouble?” I said. “You have no heartbeat,” he said. “No heartbeat?” “Very little,” he said. “Stress is keeping you alive.”

Bradycardia isn’t rare. It’s a symptom of bad things happening…dull reflexes in your valves, thickenings, cardiac arrhythmia. What is rare is when it’s not a symptom of anything else at all, when it’s just the nature of your existence. Maybe Jeb Bush and I were cousins. Both of us had the low energy gene. Dr. Besson confirmed the nothingness of my bradycardia being with a treadmill test. It took me a long time to achieve the target rate. Both techs ate their sandwiches during the session.

I was surprised that no one in Baltimore had ever picked up on my slow beats. No one had ever thought to look at the numbers with a curious mind, or to relate them to one another in the manner of Dr. Besson’s country wisdom. It isn’t enough to know the numbers or to report the numbers. You have to know the bodies where the numbers live. It isn’t about, say, 24 million people losing their health insurance or the numbers of the well-to-do who thanklessly helped pay for it. It’s more about the soul-less feeling that happens when you realize the country you fight and die for doesn’t care about you, the salt mine you gave your body to doesn’t care about you, and the man you voted for only because he said he cared about you doesn’t give a rat’s damn.

Leaving Dr. Besson’s, I noticed a sign in the lobby which I hadn’t seen before: “Anything we can’t fix with dog spit we just cut off.” Good advice. There seem to be a few Washington D.C. office holders in need of a few licks.

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