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Taking the stress out of cardiac stress tests

If you have chest pain, shortness of breath, or heart rhythm problems, your doctor may order a cardiac stress test to find out how well your heart pumps.

The test takes several hours and involves injecting a tracer and collecting images of the heart at rest, then collecting another image of the heart while it’s pumping vigorously. The images help a doctor determine whether blockages are causing problems and what treatments patients need.

Patients must fast for 12 hours before the test and avoid taking many medications. During the stress test, patients walk on a treadmill to increase their heart rate and get blood flowing; those who aren’t able to do so can use a chemical option. Either way, a stress test can seem scary. Patients are usually nervous.

“The name of the test has ‘stress’ in it,” said Karen Elliott, a registered nurse who oversees cardiac stress tests for Community HealthCare System. “But it’s a lot easier to fix things in your heart before they are broken,” she said.

Debbie Sedlacek experienced a stress test earlier this year. She said she was anxious about the test and about walking on the treadmill, but the staff at Onaga Community Hospital helped her feel more at ease. She said Elliott and other staff members laughed and joked with her while they waited for the doctor and worked through the test.

“You can sit with someone in a room and not talk to them, or you can sit with them and talk and make a patient feel more at ease. That’s what they did!” Sedlacek said.

Sedlacek also felt that she was treated like “a human being and a person” by Dr. Marcus Weiser.

“Dr. Weiser was encouraging. I knew he had a lot going on, but it never showed. When a doctor listens and really pays attention, that’s awesome,” Sedlacek said.

Sedlacek noted that Dr. Weiser noticed even the smallest details, including a spelling error in her name. She said he caught it “right away” and made sure it was changed on her record. “I was very impressed,” she said.

According to Elliott, Community HealthCare System offers stress tests in Onaga and at the Holton Family Health Center. She does 10 to 15 of stress tests every month, then based on the results of the testing, CHCS providers and outpatient clinic cardiologists refer patients for treatment as necessary. Some may need surgery to clear blockages or even bypass surgery. Others may need help making lifestyle changes to support better cardiac health.

Sometimes patients are afraid they could have a heart attack during the stress test. Elliott said she reminds patients that a stress test won’t cause blockages, but that if a problem arises during the test, hospital staff are there to help.

“A stress test doesn’t cause coronary artery disease. You probably already have that. This is the best place to be if your heart is stressed! It’s better than being out mowing your lawn or shoveling snow,” Elliott said.

Sedlacek said Elliott and other staff members helped her relax by offering care and compassion. Elliott often asked her if she was OK and offered frequent encouragement. One of the other nurses supported Sedlacek’s lower back as she walked on the treadmill, and a staff member helped hold her sore shoulder during the imaging process.

“The whole team made my stress test great. At other places, [they] just run you through the tests and say ‘OK, you are done.’ At Onaga, you can tell they love their jobs and their patients. That meant a lot to me,” Sedlacek said.

“They made my stress test less stressful,” she said. 

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