Fearing virus, some heart attack and stroke patients in Austin die at home

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) – It was July 4 weekend, and while Sherrye McAnelly didn’t know it, she’d had a stroke.

“I said I’m not feeling real good,” she told KXAN, “And as I said that, my words slurred a little bit.”

McAnelly says she tried to sleep it off at first before calling a local hospital contact, who told her to seek emergency care immediately. She’s very thankful she did.

“I was trying to make excuses for it,” she said. “Oh, it’s probably a pinched nerve, I’m slurring my words because I had a glass of wine.”

Emergency doctors are seeing a troubling trend — some patients with real emergencies are avoiding hospitals due to fears about the coronavirus.

Christopher Ziebell is the Emergency Medical Director at Dell Seton Medical Center.

“We found some people who have been having chest pains that turn out to even be a heart attack,” said Dr. Ziebell. “[They’re] suffering for three or four days before they finally come to the hospital.”

Heart attacks and strokes are of particular concern. In some cases, the hospital finds out after it’s too late.

“We’ve seen a few from the coroner unfortunately, so there are some people who have died at home,” he said.

While Austin-Travis County EMS is responding to more calls, hospital transports have dropped.

Our analysis of more than 12,000 transports over a month-long period in June and July found that transports are down 15% from the same period last year.

There are several reasons for this. More people are socially distancing during the pandemic, less likely to break a bone playing football or get food poisoning at a church picnic.

EMS says paramedics have also been working to identify options like connecting patients to virtual appointments, rather than risk the spread of COVID-19 in the community or fill up local hospitals.

“[Patients] are concerned about symptoms that may not have been as concerning in a pre-COVID environment,” said Ed Piker, a Division Chief at Austin-Travis County EMS.

But doctors say the fear some have of hospitals during the pandemic is a real one.

McAnelly, who used to work for Ascension but has since retired, said there’s nothing to be concerned about. She tells us she felt safe and isolated from other patients at Ascension Seton Williamson, where she was treated.

She’s now on blood thinners and has no medical restrictions. She considers herself lucky and is imploring people to go to the ER if their symptoms are urgent or serious.

“Listen to your body,” she said. “Listen to your body a lot closer than I was.”

Recent scientific research has shown a link between COVID-19 and stroke, notably in patients under the age of 50. Typically, more than 70% of all strokes occur over the age of 65.

These are the signs of stroke:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg (especially on one side of the body)
  • Sudden confusion or trouble speaking or understanding speech
  • Sudden vision problems in one or both eyes
  • Sudden difficulty walking or dizziness, loss of balance or problems with coordination
  • Severe headache with no known cause

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