Saturday, February 24, 2018

By Virginia Ashberry

I’ve just stopped sliding and pumping on the elliptical machine after only one minute with virtually no resistance. I’m sweating, my vision narrowing, my breath coming in short ragged gasps. One minute, one hundred pounds overweight, and even more grossly out of shape, but I’m determined to change. I step off the exercise unit with care, shuffle over to the weight lifter’s bench, lower myself down onto its slim padded surface, rest my elbows on my knees, bend forward and try to force my breath back to normal. 
  Motivated, yeah, I’m motivated. 
   More than a year before, I’d had a sudden extreme heart event of a-fib. That was bad, but the referral to a cardiologist was worse. He’d ordered a stress test. I got there on time, dressed as advised, comfortable jeans and laced runners.
  Two women in a room filled with a mixture of sports equipment, monitors, wires, and more monitors greet me with friendly efficiency. I strip to the waist as directed, get into a tiny paper top, open to the front as just a slight suggestion of modesty. Technician number one, to my left wires me up to a tangle of cords with such speed and efficiency I fell like a chaises on the G.M. assembly line. 
  “Lie down on your left on the table”,  Tech number two demands. She gets me positioned precariously close to the edge, globs me up with gel and jabs at my chest repeatedly with a cold metal roller. “Hold your breath…..Hold…             Hold….Breathe….Hold….Hold….Breathe!. After a minute or two, I think I’m getting quite good at this. I watch as she scopes out a bunch of shots of a thin piece of tissue in my heart that waves like a tiny sheet on a clothesline. This is all that keeps me alive I think, so I try to look away, but can’t. 
  Then I’m ordered up and onto the treadmill that sits squeezed beside the table.  
   I’ve never used a treadmill. I’ve only seen them in action on sitcoms, where someone usually goes flying off the end. 
Tech number one taps madly on her keyboard, then snaps her head toward me like she’s just noticed me there. “Hold the handles. Tell me if you need to stop.”
   “Okay” I respond over the hum of the machine already trying to get ahead of me. I walk fast, then faster, then start to run, but I’m told not to run, then it goes faster, then on an angle upwards, then things are getting dark, then darker and the Tech notices .  She stops the machine. 
   “Quick! Quick!” Tech two yells. 
   “Huh?” I gasp. 
   “Quick! Back on the table! On your left side!
   My head is swimming, I’m heaving, trying to catch my breath, but I do manage to get back on the table with Tech two calling out for me to hold and breathe again and again, but all I can do is pant. Yeah, pant. Like a dog. My tongue hanging out of my mouth, my vision still narrow, even my hearing seems to be coming and going. 

   Finally I’m told to get dressed, I’m told I did just fine. Later, in the next office, the cardiologist tells me my heart is fine, but he will see me again in one year. 
Sure, my heart is fine, but I panted like a dog!
So now, ten months later, and with that massive humiliation looming, I introduce myself to the gym on the main floor of my condo. 
   I’ve asked around at work, had a few lunch room conversations about what’s the best work out for a middle aged woman who weighs more than 230 pounds. With my coworkers’ help, we’ve decided on the elliptical. Gliding with the feet, pumping with arms, it’s the best workout without nasty impact on joints. Sounds good, almost elegant. 
   But here I am, (thank god alone) in the gym panting again. One minute. Just one minute and I’m spent. 
   I rest for five minutes then check around, no, nobody else has come in. 
  I climb back onto the machine, pump away for another single minute, get off, wipe my face on my sleeve and head back to my apartment. Getting off the elevator, still heaving, I site on the fire pull station on the wall, I’ll pull it if I have to summon rescue, but I manage to get past that to my door. I get inside my unit, flop on the sofa and sit very still. 
   Two minutes total. That’s all I could do. 
  It’s August and my next stress test is in mid-October. If I can get to ten minutes on the elliptical by Christmas, I think, that will be amazing. 
   The next night I make more preparations. I wear cut off jean’s shorts so that I have a pocket to carry my health card. I bring water and a towel. 
   I glide for two and a half minutes, rest breathless again for five, then two more minutes. 
   The next night three and three.  
   By the end of September I can do twenty minutes straight, with significant resistance. All kinds of buff and perky young residents come and go during my workouts. I am massively grateful that not once have I seen a smirk. 
   I start eyeing the rowing machine. 
   I still carry my health card. 
   In October, I meet again with the cardiologist, the same technicians, the same treadmill, the same strong heart, but this time, no dog. 

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