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By:  Robbie I. Ichelson

Most people love the holidays.  We look forward to them all year long.  It doesn’t matter what you celebrate there is something magical about this time of year.  Despite the fact that the weather isn’t frightful (and it will be soon enough, don’t you worry) the holiday season is joyous.  It is a time of year that we reflect on the past year while looking forward to the coming year.  We spend time with family and friends celebrating and enjoying time together.  We eat and drink (often to excess).  We travel.  We give and receive.  Hopefully we remember what is important in life spending time with those that matter the most.

But for me and many of my colleagues the holidays are not all that joyous.  I am not saying that I don’t like the holidays because I do.  I love spending time lighting the Menorah and giving my kids gifts during each of the eight nights of Hanukah.  I love eating our customary holiday foods like Latkes and Sufganyiot (a delicious round jelly doughnut) despite the associated weight gain I get from such delicious foods.

But there is another side to the holidays.  The elephant in the room side.  The side that is never talked about.  One that will likely surprise and scare you.

I spent the better part of the last 20 years working in Canada’s largest city as an advanced care paramedic.  And, this is where I developed my dislike for the holidays.  Over the years I noticed that the closer we got to the holidays the busier it became and the sicker the patients were.  I noticed that patients of all ages were suffering from terrible injuries and illnesses.  I can’t even tell you how many cardiac arrests I have worked under the flashing lights of the family Christmas Tree or in the busy shopping mall.

The research supports the theory that heart attacks and deaths increase during the holidays.  In one study published in the journal Circulation the authors found that there was a 5% increase in cardiac related deaths during the holidays with the most deadly days of the year being Christmas, Boxing, and New Years day.  Another later study confirmed the earlier research findings that there is a spike in heart attacks and related deaths, about 42,000 in the US over a 25 year period, during the two weeks staring with Christmas.  What is not completely clear is the reason for this phenomenon.

Ok so I’m not crazy.  My observations are real.  So here is another one of my observations from the holidays.  All of the cardiac arrest patients I treated died and they all had something in common.  No CPR was being done prior to my services arrival.  It’s no wonder that across Canada we have a survival rate of about 5% from sudden cardiac arrest.

According to current Canadian research cardiac arrest occurs every 13 minutes and 85% occur outside of the hospital.  Someone in this country has a heart attack every 7 minutes and the majority of heart attack patients who die will die outside of the hospital.  So, what does this mean?  85% of the people suffering cardiac arrest will need help from YOU the public.  85% will need YOU to start CPR and hopefully have access to and USE a defibrillator before I get there.  If only CPR and defibrillation was started sooner, we could double survival rates.

Here are some quick things to remember,

Chest pain and discomfort should be treated like it is a heart attack until ruled out by a medical professional.  Call 9-1-1 immediately.  Don’t worry about ruining Christmas by calling because the alternative is death under the Christmas tree.  Some other signs of heart attack include,

  • Pain or discomfort in the jaw, arm or neck
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pale, cold and sweaty

Remember if you or your family experiences any one or more of these symptoms get help immediately.  Don’t drive to the hospital.  Call 9-1-1.  The paramedics will come to you, treat you on scene and then transport you to the best hospital to treat you.

What else can you do.  Take a CPR course.  Don’t wait.  Don’t delay.  It is easy.  It is simple.  2 – 4 hours and you will have the knowledge, skills, and confidence to react when someone goes into cardiac arrest or has a heart attack.

Make learning CPR your priority this holiday season.