In the early days of public health restrictions prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, health-care workers described an eerie quiet in emergency departments.
Half-empty waiting rooms and cancelled clinic appointments were particularly disquieting to cardiac physicians, who know heart attacks don’t stop because there’s a global pandemic.
Now, cardiologists and cardiac surgeons are bracing for a wave of patients showing up with permanent, life-altering heart damage, and — even worse — stories of people who died at home, untreated.
“We usually say time is muscle — heart muscle,” Edmonton cardiologist Dr. Marcelo Shibata said in an interview. “The longer you take to go to the hospital, the more damage you have in your heart — if you survive.”
Shibata is one of several specialists who say the pandemic is interfering with every stage of care for patients with potentially life-threatening heart problems.
They say patients are afraid to call 911 or go to emergency rooms for fear of contracting COVID-19 or burdening an already-overwhelmed health-care system.
Hospital outbreaks have cancelled follow-up appointments or moved them online.
One Toronto modelling exercise estimated 35 people would die in Ontario during the early months of the pandemic while waiting for cardiac surgeries considered elective.
A surge of Albertans gravely ill with COVID-19 and needing intensive care also pushed Alberta Health Services to open about 100 more beds and expand ICUs into unusual places. At times, cardiac care unit beds have become intensive care beds.
COVID-19 is also hampering patients’ recoveries from heart attacks. Many fitness and rehabilitation programs have been shuttered or limited by public health restrictions.
Although patients with COVID-19 deserve excellent care, health-care leaders cannot ease responses to other serious health threats, doctors say.
Cardiac diseases have been the No. 2 killer of Canadians for a decade, responsible for more than 52,000 deaths in 2019, according to Statistics Canada. They are trumped only by cancer — another killer where timely diagnosis and treatment can make all the difference.
“We should not displace resources from cardiac care just for the sake of this pandemic,” said Dr. John Dimitry, an Edmonton cardiologist and medical director of the cardiac care unit at the Misericordia Hospital. “We have to treat this just as seriously as COVID-19.”
The fear factor of COVID-19
The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Patrice Lindsay says she hears fear and confusion from heart patients.
The Toronto-based director of health systems change with the organization says people email her, asking what to do after experiencing chest pain for days.
She tells them to call 911 immediately.
Author: Janet French