COVID-19 fears fuel rise in heart attacks in Nova Scotia

·4 min read
At the start of the pandemic, many people with heart attack or stroke symptoms were not showing up at the hospital.     (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
At the start of the pandemic, many people with heart attack or stroke symptoms were not showing up at the hospital. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

Fear of COVID-19 has kept people with early symptoms of heart attack and stroke from going to the hospital, which has led to a jump in serious cardiovascular cases across the province, according to new research by Nova Scotia Health.

"We hear from our patients that they are afraid to come to the hospital, they don't want to come to the hospital for fear of contracting COVID," said Dr. Ratika Parkash, a cardiologist and director of research for the cardiology division with the health authority.

"So they stay away, then they miss the opportunity to prevent that heart attack by paying attention to the warning signs and get treated for their symptoms early."

Parkash's research looks at how many people have been coming to hospital with cardiac and stroke symptoms during the pandemic, and how that compares to the previous three years.

In the fall and winter of 2020, the number of heart attack cases shot up.

Dr. Ratika Parkash is a cardiologist and director of research for the cardiology division of Nova Scotia Health. She is also director of heart rhythm with the health authority and a professor in the Department of Medicine at Dalhousie University.
Dr. Ratika Parkash is a cardiologist and director of research for the cardiology division of Nova Scotia Health. She is also director of heart rhythm with the health authority and a professor in the Department of Medicine at Dalhousie University. (Marvin Moore)

Most months, hospitals in Nova Scotia deal with 20 to 30 heart attacks. Those numbers almost doubled in the fall of 2020.

"Per month we're getting an extra 20 patients who are getting treated," said Parkash. "Patients are even coming in later, even though COVID sort of petered out here in the province, we've seen patients have waited longer to come in, they're sicker when they come in."

There was also an increase in the number of people who died from strokes, said Parkash.

Cardiac arrest or suspected cardiac arrest calls to paramedics also increased by about 20 patients a month up to 140, according to Dr. John Sapp, another cardiologist who helped with Parkash's research.

He said that increase isn't far outside of the normal range he would see month-to-month — except the number of cardiac arrests usually dips down in the summer to about 100 cases per month. In 2020, that number stayed up to around 130 to 140 cases.

Dr. John Sapp is a cardiologist and heart rhythm specialist at the QEII hospital. Sapp is also a professor of medicine at Dalhousie University.
Dr. John Sapp is a cardiologist and heart rhythm specialist at the QEII hospital. Sapp is also a professor of medicine at Dalhousie University. (Submitted by John Sapp)

All those numbers represent a big change from the start of the pandemic in March 2020, when almost no one was visiting hospitals with suspected heart attack and stroke symptoms, said Parkash.

She and her team want anyone experiencing those symptoms to go to hospital and get checked out as soon as possible. Symptoms of a heart attack include tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, back pain, along with discomfort in the arms and jaw.

Symptoms of a stroke include the inability to raise both arms, a drooping face, and slurred or jumbled speech, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

Early treatment can help prevent a more serious heart attack or stroke, help preserve heart muscle, and reduce recovery time, said Parkash.

"We don't want people to ignore the early warning signs of cardiovascular disease," said Sapp. "They should be checked out."

'An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure'

That's a sentiment Bernie Leonard of Halifax agrees with. The 78-year-old has survived five heart attacks and one cardiac arrest.

He said early detection by his cardiologist probably saved his life. In 1999, he started having chest pains and had a lack of energy at work. He figured the symptoms were connected to his heart, because he already had a heart attack back in 1982.

So he went to the doctor.

They discovered blockages in his heart and Leonard had to have a quadruple bypass.

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," said Leonard. "I don't know why anybody would wait. If you suspect any kind of issue with chest pain, or heaviness, or shortness of breath or all these things like that, you should go immediately."

Bernie Leonard has struggled with heart health most of his adult life. He's had five heart attacks and one cardiac arrest.
Bernie Leonard has struggled with heart health most of his adult life. He's had five heart attacks and one cardiac arrest.(Submitted by Bernie Leonard)

Leonard even survived going into cardiac arrest back in 2015, when he was saved by bystanders at a golf course. They used an automatic defibrillator to get his heart going again. He now has seven stents in his heart keeping his blood flowing.

Parkash said people need to realize that hospitals are safe. Staff at hospitals where COVID-19 patients are being treated make sure no one else comes into contact with the virus.

"Patients should rest assured that they are going to be protected when they come to the hospital ... we don't want to see patients with conditions that are eminently treatable to suffer because of this pandemic," said Parkash.

"The stay at home message is important of course, but not if you have symptoms that might suggest a heart attack or a stroke."

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