Even as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches toward a third year, National Heart Month is a reminder that heart disease remains the leading cause of death for all Americans. In fact, deaths from heart disease have nearly doubled those from COVID over the two years since the pandemic began.
How can we continue to be vigilant against COVID while protecting ourselves against a statistically larger threat? "COVID-19 and heart disease isn’t an either/or issue,” advises Dr. Paul Stefanacci, Chief Medical Officer for the UHS Acute Care Division. “We need to do what we can to limit both.”
COVID-19 and heart health are linked in three key ways:
- Many Americans have deferred treatment for heart disease due to widespread strain on the healthcare system or a reluctance to seek care.
- COVID-19 can cause long-lasting heart problems, stemming from virus complications such as hyper-inflammation and blood clots.
- The sedentary lifestyle and stress levels associated with the pandemic magnify key risk factors of heart disease. Specifically, a pandemic-related increase in obesity made more Americans vulnerable than ever before.
Partnership Between Patient and Care Provider Is Crucial in Preventing and Treating Heart Disease
"COVID-19 has profoundly affected people’s lives and health and required unprecedented actions to fight it," said Dr. Stefanacci. "While it’s important to avoid behaviors that can spread COVID-19, it’s critical that people don’t ignore the symptoms and engage with their healthcare providers to identify and treat heart disease, to lower the risk of serious complications and even death. This will ultimately increase knowledge and awareness of heart disease and its contributing factors."
UHS continues to put its patients first and take comprehensive action to limit the possibility of COVID-19 infection in its hospitals and facilities, including extensive cleaning, masking and social distancing protocols, as well as placing limits on visitation and elective surgeries when it makes sense. Its hospitals stand ready to care for people with heart disease when they need it most. Here are the stories of four such people.
Making a Difference
Debora Sullivan was 65 and retired from decades as a nurse, spending much of her free time tending to her garden. She noticed she was slowing down, but attributed these changes to aging and the Carolina sun. She didn’t imagine she was experiencing a heart attack until she woke up around 5 a.m. one morning with pain in her left elbow and in a tooth. She was rushed to Aiken Regional Medical Centers for treatment in the cardiac catheterization lab, where they removed a blockage from a cardiac artery and inserted two stents to keep the artery open.
A graduate of a 12-week cardiac rehabilitation program at Aiken, Sullivan says she now feels “20 years younger.” She encourages others to listen to their bodies for early warning signs of heart failure: “Pay attention to how you are feeling. Even subtle changes in your health can be early warning signs. My heart attack symptoms were very vague. I’m so grateful to Aiken Regional for the care I received and for the second chance at life.”
Tom James, 65, was struggling to even walk up the staircase in his California home last spring, and his wife of 45 years, Laurie, was convinced he needed a heart procedure, but COVID concerns kept him in his home. It took a call from Tom’s cardiologist to convince him to go to California’s Temecula Valley Hospital. Tom finally agreed. He couldn’t believe how safe the hospital was when he arrived. It was clean, the team was confident and professional, and it was nothing like what he had imagined during a pandemic. "The team was amazing, everything was absolutely wonderful," he says. A blockage was cleared and Tom went home with a new lease on life. "I am so glad I finally went into Temecula Valley Hospital," he says. "Before my surgery, I was thinking every day was my last. Temecula Valley Hospital saved my life!"
Patrick Casey, of Aiken, South Carolina, has been living with heart failure for four years. His routine included frequent visits to the cardiologist. He has a new lease on life now, thanks to the Abbott CardioMEMS™ HF System, which is available at Aiken Regional Medical Centers. The remote monitoring technology wirelessly measures and monitors indicators of worsening heart failure. “It’s very comforting to know that my condition is being monitored each and every day,” he says. “I am very grateful.”
Even in a pandemic, programs like cardiac rehabilitation are an important component in getting people back to the life they wish to lead. Larry LeCrone had been feeling tired and knew something was off, but it wasn't until "a horrible pain hit" that he agreed to go to St. Mary's Regional Medical Center, in Enid, Oklahoma, to get his symptoms checked out. The decision likely saved his life. "I wound up with a triple bypass," he says. Afterward, he was happy to learn that St. Mary's has a cardiac rehabilitation program for patients like him who need specialized care after a cardiac event. "It's like you get a do-over with life," he says of the turnaround he made at St. Mary's. "They got me motivated. They got me to make some changes. They got me exercising. They're a great bunch."