Pandemic continues to have impact on heart health in Clark County

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

When Springfield resident Judy Melvin, 81, had her heart attack in October she was walking up to her house after grocery shopping when she began having intense chest pain.

The next few hours were filled with the squad arriving at her home to begin care, and later transporting her to Springfield Regional Medical Center, where doctors found that the left anterior descending artery – the tube of muscle that supplies blood to the largest part of her heart – was completely blocked.

“They call it the widowmaker,” she said.

Springfield Regional Medical Center sees roughly 300 patients per year who receive a heart attack diagnosis, according to the hospital. February is American Heart Health Month, and area doctors are pointing to the importance of maintaining heart health during the pandemic.

A recent Cleveland Clinic survey of 1,000 Americans found that more than 40% of Americans have experienced at least one heart-related issue since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Top issues identified by participants of the survey included shortness of breath, dizziness, increased blood pressure and chest pain.

Dr. Tariq Rizvi, an interventional cardiologist at Springfield Regional Medical Center, said that the pandemic could have lasting impacts on heart health locally. His patients have reported an increase in admissions for heart failure since the pandemic’s start.

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death worldwide, according to the American Heart Association, and the effects of COVID-19 are likely to influence cardiovascular health and mortality rates for many years as a result of increased lifestyle-related risks during and after the pandemic.

The cardiologist said his patients are constantly vocalizing their stress surrounding the pandemic, for example. This can present itself in many layers: worries over sick loved ones, fear for one’s own healthcare, stress over pandemic-impacted finances, and more.

“Every second conversation revolves around how they’re scared, and depending on the age spectrum of who you’re talking to, you can almost see that and the amount of stress that causes,” he said. “You spend a lot of time counseling them, reassuring them.”

Increased levels of stress cause an array of health issues that impact a person’s heart health, Rizvi said. High blood pressure, a result of stress, can lead to all forms of cardio conditions from increased incidences of heart failure to increased incidences of heart attacks.

“The consequences of this, we’re going to continue to see for months to come unfortunately,” he said.

Rizvi also said that the pandemic has increased a sense of fear or apprehension among people in regard to medical care, creating a delay in seeking medical care among many.

“The preventable conditions, presenting much later, can cause some considerable damage,” he said.

The pandemic has also changed the lifestyles of Clark County residents, with many developing a sedentary lifestyle during an age of closures, quarantine and working from home.

Interventional cardiologist Dr. Muhammad Ashraf said that many of his patients have voiced concern over weight gain. Inflammation that results from weight gain can cause damage to a person’s vascular system, making a patient more susceptible to heart attack and stroke.

The pandemic also created barriers for patients seeking certain kinds of healthcare.

Cardiology services maintained availability of services throughout the pandemic, according to Mercy Health in an email, but the hospital did have to pause its cardiac rehabilitation services with the shut down of elective services.

For others, healthcare that wasn’t linked to COVID-19 prevention and care fell out of view, said Shella Baker-Trego. She works as the chest pain pathway clinical coordinator at Mercy Health’s Springfield Regional Medical Center, and she and others at the hospital are working to raise awareness of surrounding heart health – particularly heart attack prevention and recovery – through its Segment Elevation Myocardial Infarction (STEMI) programming.

The chest pain coordinator said the hospital in late 2021 witnessed a “surge” in emergent patients who fell behind on screenings and other services related to heart health. At that time, the emergency rooms in the region, too, were “bursting at the seams,” she said.

Heart attacks can come without warning, said Steve Southward, who had his attack in June 2018. Five years prior to his attack, Southward had three stints put into his heart, and he said he has a history of heart issues in his family.

He and his wife Renee said that Steve’s attack occurred after a night out. Upon turning in for the night, Renee noticed Steve immediately falling asleep with an unusual snoring. Renee began prodding him to tease him about the snoring, but he was unresponsive. She then contacted emergency services.

“I knew something was wrong at that point,” she said. “There was something just a little bit different.”

A neighbor was guided through the process of CPR as Renee talked to the 911 operator. Paramedics arrived and began care as Steve was on his way to the hospital, where he stayed for a week. He later had a quintuple bypass surgery.

Recovery from a heart attack can vary by patient. For Melvin, she was hospitalized for the night and released the next day.

Her recovery post-hospitalization has included some life adjustments.

Melvin began attending cardiac rehabilitation at the local hospital, where she exercises and learns ways to prepare heart-healthy meals. She also tries to stay active by socializing with friends.

For Steve, he considers his recovery “incredible,” and he said he’s thankful for the support he received from his healthcare providers and from his network of loved ones.

Steve also made adjustments to his lifestyle – for example, limiting his salt intake.

Ashraf said that a large component to maintaining heart health starts with nutrition. He tells his patients to opt for a vegetable-heavy diet and limit processed foods, which are often high in fat and high in salt. He also reminds his patients about portion control and not overeating.

“A plant-based diet is the best diet you can have,” he said. “Hot dogs, fried fish, burgers, steaks… these are bad for the heart. Bad cholesterol goes up, arteries clog up… eat to survive.”

Exercise is another large component to maintaining good heart health, Ashraf said.

“Exercise is when you speed up your heart rate and you sweat,” he said. “Working a job where you walk all day long is an exertion, not exercise.”

The American Heart Association recommends that people exercise for 30 minutes three times per week. Dr. Ashraf said this could present itself through activities like faster-paced walking or weight training.

Steve and Renee said they love to go for walks with each other, and Steve believes their walking tradition built prior to June 2018 helped contribute to his heart being strong enough to get through the attack.

Looking back at her health emergency, Melvin said she is grateful for the care she received that October day.

“I consider myself lucky,” she said.

A word of advice Melvin offered to others is that they shouldn’t wait to receive medical care if they show signs of a heart issue.

“Sometimes you are in denial,” she said. “But don’t wait! Time is important.”

Signs you may be having a heart attack

  • Chest pain or discomfort: Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes – sometimes it goes away then returns. This can feel like an uncomfortable amount of pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body: Symptoms can include pain in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or even the stomach.
  • Shortness of breath: This may accompany chest discomfort.
  • Other possible signs: breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea and/or lightheadedness.

Source: American Heart Association

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