Doctor: Heart attacks are often ignored on slopes until too late
December 27, 2002
Dr. Gordon Gerson is haunted, in a professional sense, by four heart-attack deaths suffered by skiers on local slopes last season.
In all four cases, he said, the men experienced symptoms that suggested heart trouble, but brushed them aside.
“Their story was the same each time – they just weren’t feeling right,” said Gerson.
One man was advised by the ski patrol to go to the hospital. He refused and later died from a heart attack on the slopes.
Another man told friends at lunchtime that he wasn’t feeling well but insisted on pushing on. He paid with his life.
Another man made it through a day of skiing despite feeling poorly. He died in his hotel room.
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The cases are troubling to Gerson because the men didn’t seek medical attention even though they knew something was wrong. “These people would be alive,” said the cardiologist at Aspen Valley Hospital.
He is doing what he can to prevent the same scenario from unfolding again this season. He is on a campaign to urge people to error on the side of caution if they feel symptoms consistent with a heart attack.
“If you’re not 100 percent sure what’s causing this distress, you might as well come in to the emergency room,” he said. “It’s better to take a couple of hours to see the doctor than to die.”
He realizes he places the warning in stark terms but believes it is sage advice for saving lives. Gerson said his success rate for treating heart-attack victims since joining AVH in October 2000 speaks for itself.
“If they made it to the hospital pre-arrest, none of them died,” he said.
Ignoring the symptoms of heart attacks aren’t isolated to Aspen’s residents and guests. Gerson said he has treated at least 10 people during his career, prior to coming to Aspen, who had residue from Mylanta around their mouths. People misdiagnosed their distress as heartburn and gobbled an anti-acid.
The heart-attack symptoms that should raise a flag for victims are a squeezing feeling in the chest that radiates into the neck and shoulders. The key word is squeezing, not necessarily pain.
“People say it’s not a pain. I know it’s not a pain!” Gerson said.
Other symptoms are nausea, stomach discomfort and shortness of breath.
It’s unusual for heart-attack victims to suffer a feeling exactly like indigestion. Upon reflection, victims who recover acknowledge that it was indigestion like they’ve never felt before, Gerson said.
In Aspen and other high-altitude resorts, people sometimes confuse heart attacks with altitude sickness. The major difference, Gerson said, is altitude sickness includes a headache.
He believes people often ignore their symptoms because they are on vacation and determined to have a good time. They come from sea level, ski hard, eat a fatty meal, drink alcohol, stay up late and repeat the procedure the next day, and the next, and the next.
Lots of Aspen’s visitors are highly successful in the business world because they are “driven,” he noted. They bring that same drive and attention to detail to their vacation. The stress combined with lifestyle choices at a high elevation can be a recipe for disaster.
The good news is that heart attacks usually give victims enough time to react, Gerson said. The key is recognizing the symptoms and acting to have them checked.
“I just can’t say it enough – early recognition, early recognition, early recognition,” he said.