If you are experiencing a medical emergency, please call 911 or seek care at an emergency room.
Feeling stress or strain on your heart these days? Here’s a sobering fact: Anxiety about the novel coronavirus is causing people in our community to avoid seeking medical help for their heart issues.
So-called “COVID phobia” is delaying treatment and causing needless suffering. Since the pandemic began, the number of patients going to emergency rooms for heart attack and stroke has plummeted.
If you have chest discomfort or other warning signs of a heart attack, don’t delay! Come to the ER. At MedStar Washington Hospital Center, we’re well equipped both to safeguard you from the virus and to give you cardiac care that could save your life or protect you from long-term injury.
Coronavirus vs. Chronic Medical Conditions
During the pandemic, as always, it’s critical not to dismiss warning signs of a potential medical issue—like the crushing pain of a heart attack. Your condition may become even worse if you don’t get appropriate medical care when needed or neglect your planned therapy, preventative treatment, or screenings.
At the Hospital Center, we are, of course, trying to prevent patients of all types from exposure to this new virus. But at the same time, our mission is to avoid a potential increase in deaths from other serious or chronic conditions.
Feeling the warning signs of a #heartattack? Don’t avoid the hospital because you fear #COVID19. Head for the ER, says @HashimHayder bit.ly/3bIZqzm @MedStarWHC #COVIDPhobia
Listen to Your Body’s Warning Signs
My patients often describe their heart attack pain as an elephant sitting on their chest. Pain might also travel down the left arm, or up to your neck or jaw. Other symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- A sense of impending doom
- Sweating profusely even if not exerting physically
Women may experience different and more vague symptoms:
- Pain in the upper part of the abdomen right below the ribs
And studies show that the novel coronavirus itself can impact the heart. It can imitate certain heart attack symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, abnormal EKGs, and severe inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) among others.
Only a proper medical examination can determine whether you’re experiencing a heart attack, virus symptoms, or some other issue.
When the Pain Goes Away
For some patients, that characteristic crushing pain may very well subside. But this doesn’t mean you tackled death and won. This is just the body saying, “I tried everything I could to alarm you. I gave you pain, nausea, shortness of breath. I give up.”
The damage remains, and most likely you will eventually suffer from a chronic, hard-to-treat illness. Ignoring symptoms of heart disease can lead to death of the heart muscle.
Complications of Delayed Treatment
Traditionally, our patients arrive from Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia by ambulance or helicopter. The emergency medical service crew sends the EKG ahead, so we’re ready to work on patients as soon as they arrive. Because we can treat them within 50–60 minutes of onset, many heart attack victims are able to sit up shortly after treatment. They text, they call their family—even though they just suffered a heart attack!
Unfortunately, these days many heart attack victims are staying home, wary of COVID-19. They opt to treat themselves with aspirin and wait for the pain to go away. After 24 hours, they don't feel pain anymore, but they will grow sicker over time.
For example, before this new virus, we saw maybe one or two cases a year of ventricular septal defect (VSD), a hole between the chambers of the heart typically caused by delayed treatment. But in the last three weeks alone, we’ve already treated three patients with VSD.
How Sick Is Too Sick?
Some patients who are chronically ill with heart disease also try to stay home and self-treat. Unfortunately, without regular medical attention, their illness can progress to the point where it's too late to help them.
Here’s an analogy: When 80% of your house is on fire, the house is already beyond help, even though 50 fire trucks might arrive to put out the flames. The minute you see the fire is the time to summon help, and extinguish it while damage is still minimal.
In the same way, ignoring warning signs because of virus phobia can eventually make a weakened heart muscle difficult to salvage. Even if we can help you, you could be permanently injured or ill for the rest of your life. That’s what we want to prevent.
Time is of the essence. As we cardiologists say, time is muscle. Make the phone call. Come to the ER if you have symptoms. Don’t wait for symptoms to improve—call 911 or have a telehealth visit with your doctor. Describe what you’re experiencing and get their advice.
Equipped to Protect You
Throughout MedStar Washington Hospital Center, we have developed new pathways and protocols to create a safe environment for you during this pandemic.
We have the right personal protective equipment to keep you safe while we treat you. The minute you enter the Hospital Center, you will wear a mask. If you don't have one, we'll give you one.
We take your temperature. If no fever is recorded, you will be guided to admissions or registration. Seating in our waiting areas is separated by six feet or more. There is enough staff to receive you and work to treat you quickly.
If you’re going to the cardiac catheterization lab, a concierge associate will escort you. They’ll operate the elevator and help you arrive at the lab without contacting quarantined areas or hallways.
As we adapt to life with the coronavirus, I am conducting more telehealth visits. I sit with my patients virtually, face-to-face, review their symptoms, discuss their medications, review their chart, and discuss their treatment plan. They don’t have to worry about the new virus. And if we determine they do need medical attention right away, they know what to expect when they get here.
Avoid the Virus…But Take Care of Yourself!
If you’re nervous about coming in to the hospital, but have some health concerns, speak with a medical professional. Schedule a telehealth visit. Mammograms, colonoscopies, and screening for cancer are still essential to detect life-threatening conditions. Maintaining your health to avoid future medical issues is as essential as getting your groceries or prescription medications.
COVID-19 is just one illness that we face today. But other illnesses still require our attention. It’s worth repeating: if you think you’re having a heart attack, stroke, or other medical emergency, call 911 and come to the ER. For less urgent matters, schedule an appointment with your doctor.
Let us give you the treatment you need when you need it.