The Day I had a Stress Test (and what it has to do with race and privilege)
Updated: Sep 2
I never imagined that a stress test would bring me closer to understanding white privilege, and to understanding what it's like to be black in America. But it did. It happened in a sterile doctor's office, where I was half naked and asked to run on a treadmill. Let me explain.
I found out a few years ago that there is a genetic heart condition that runs in my family on my dad's side. It's rare and there's not a cure, and it can kill you. My uncles have it, one of my cousins, but not my dad, so I have been monitoring my heart and making sure it's ticking properly. (So far so good.) Part of this monitoring involves going for regular cardiology appointments and having the occasional stress test. If you haven't had one, this involves being hooked up to a machine that monitors your heart's rhythms while on a treadmill walking, then jogging on a flat, and then a hill, until exhaustion. Good times.
I went for my stress test up at Mt. Sinai and was told to bring something to wear to exercise in. I was brought into a windowless room, painted hospital beige, with a medical cot and a treadmill, and was joined by a nurse, an African American woman around my age. She asked me to change and remove everything from the waist up. "I brought my sports bra and shorts," I said. "You can put on the shorts, but you won't be wearing a bra," she said. "You can't wear one while you do the stress test." I thought I heard wrong. "I am sorry, did you say I won't be wearing a bra while jogging?" "Yes, that's right. No bra. It may interfere with the wiring to the heart monitor," she said, while getting the wires ready. Come again?
"Sorry, I don't understand, you want me to jog, half-naked? With my boobs flying all over the place?" I mean I am not Dolly Parton but still. I was incredulous. "I can't do that," I said. Not only did it seem like some sort of bad candid camera moment, I just could not understand how this was hospital policy, to have women with breasts of all sizes jogging without a bra while hooked up to a heart monitor. It was a comedic and painful thought.
The nurse was firm: "This is the policy," she said. "And honestly, I have never had anyone challenge it before. Where did you come from?" She seemed shocked by my questions.
I didn't want to pick a fight with her, but I was not going to do this test half-naked. "Can I speak to someone about this? Is there a manager around? Because I am not going to do a stress test half naked with my boobs banging me in the face," I said.
She looked at me like I had three heads. "OK, I will be back," she said. I waited, muttering to myself about how this was possible that (a) this was policy and (b) no one had ever said anything about it.
A few minutes later she came back and said, "It's fine, you can wear your bra." Wow. I smiled, "Great, thanks for checking for me." I put my jogging bra on and got on the tread mill where she carefully pasted sensors to my chest, lacing the wires under the bra so they were secure.
I started to walk, then run, and sweat and then I was done. Ticker passed.
"I want you to know something," she said to me, after we were done with the stress test and I was dressed. "I would never have said anything like you just said. I am a black woman and if I had challenged policy, I would have been sent home, they would not have done the test." I let that sink in.
We sat there, together, and I listened to her share her experiences with me, how many times throughout her life she had been treated like half a person, dismissed, deemed invisible, unworthy. "I could never have raised my voice like you did. I didn't like you very much when you started speaking up."
I didn't know what to say to her, but sitting there together, listening to her share her stories, I got a more intimate understanding of what it must be like to be a black woman in America, not to mention a black mother. There is so much stress in the day to day of being black in America—in standing in line for coffee, driving a car, playing in your backyard, taking a walk, going to the doctor, in just living.
I wanted to say, I AM SO SORRY! THIS WORLD IS SO UNFAIR AND I WANT TO CHANGE IT FOR YOU! LET ME GO WITH YOU TO THE DOCTOR NEXT TIME! LET ME TAKE YOU TO FOR COFFEE, LET ME DRIVE YOUR CAR. LET ME WRAP YOU UP IN MY PRIVILEGE SO AMERICA CAN'T HURT YOU ANYMORE. But I didn't say that. How could I? Is that really the answer?
"I'm grateful that you talked to me, that you shared your story. Thank you." We hugged. "After meeting you, maybe I will ask for more," she said as I turned to leave.
When I got home I called the hospital and asked them to change the policy so that no woman would have to ask to be treated properly again. They called me back later and told me that they had spoken to the head of cardiology and that this policy was not in effect any longer.
I have often thought of that stress test because it was just one of many days where a mirror was held to my face; where I was able to see my privilege and how I use it every day. I have the luxury of not thinking about race, of not worrying that my son will be killed because he has a pack of Skittles in his pocket and is wearing a hoodie, of not being afraid to push back against a policy for fear of being put in jail or killed, or forgotten.
These days, like many of you, I am horrified by this coronavirus, sure, but the virus of racism? That's one we must also work on—there's no vaccine and there's no cure that can be brewed in a lab. That takes work, together, all of us. Reading, talking, listening, learning, and supporting our black community, because they are our community.
We are part of a community that must take care of each other, and that seems like it should be simple but it is not because the community of the United States of America has made it its mission to systemically marginalize people of color. Racism is built into capitalism, into education, into health care, into housing and employment, and into the foundation of this country. It is going to take a lot to change that. I don't claim to know the answer, but I am trying to be part of the solution, teaching my kids about race and racism, working on being an ally, and using my wealth, whatever I have, to support causes like the NAACP, the Equal Justice Initiative and Fair Fight, among many others. This guide on how to support black-owned financial institutions is also a good one.
It's hard to be hopeful when there is so much pain. But MLK said, "a riot is the language of the unheard." That is where we are now, listening to the voices of the marginalized, and we must listen. Listen to the stories of the unheard.
Rest in Power #GeorgeFloyd.