Dr. Travis Stork from “The Doctors” talks about heart health, with tips for caregivers
February is Heart Health Month. With this in mind, Dr. Travis Stork, co-host of the award winning talk show The Doctors, generously donated some time for a small conference call that allowed four writers to ask specific questions about heart health. Dr. Stork is a practicing ER doctor and faculty physician in the emergency department at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.
The takeaway from the call was much the same as one would get from watching the energetic Dr. Stork on television. He is a strong believer in helping patients feel empowered when it comes to their health. He teaches by example when it comes to healthy living, and on the call expressed the opinion that we should do the same.
When an interviewer asked him what one change he would suggest that people make in their daily routine, Dr. Stork didn’t miss a beat before saying “walk at least 30 minutes a day.” What impressed me was his strong feeling that if parents take up this type of exercise and make it a habit, it can become a family activity. By example, the parents can help instill the belief in their children that exercise as a way of life will keep them on the road to good health.
General tips on heart health
Most of us know the risk factors for heart disease: smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, untreated diabetes, stress and lack of regular exercise.
Most of us also know the typical symptoms of a heart problem. These include chest discomfort that lasts for more the a few minutes or that goes away and then returns, pain in one or both arms or the back, shortness of breath, a cold sweat, nausea and/or lightheadedness.
What many people – especially women – don’t know to look for are indigestion, pain and discomfort in the stomach, headaches and fatigue.
How can a tired, stressed caregiver know when he or she is in trouble?
The sometimes vague symptoms that can signal a heart attack for women were the foundation for one of my questions for Dr. Stork. While male caregivers are increasing in number, the majority are still women. I’ve met very few hands-on caregivers who do not routinely experience stress induced indigestion and/or stomach pain, headaches and fatigue, so I asked Dr. Stork how we tease apart these typical caregiver issues from potential heart attack symptoms.
Dr. Stork said that people come in to the ER and say “I just don’t feel right.” That is the key. You feel different. Your fatigue isn’t your everyday “I just want to collapse” tiredness. Listen to your body. If you feel different and know in your gut that something is wrong, head to the emergency room. Don’t take a chance. Get checked out.
This answer goes to the very heart of caregiving. Caregivers tend to put themselves on the bottom of the list when it comes to just about everything. Caregivers who are in the sandwich generation, as I was for many years, are particularly time challenged. Everything from exercise to diet gets put off until a "better day." When will that be? Caregivers need to change that thinking and make ourselves a priority.
Heart attacks can’t be diagnosed just from symptoms
Dr. Stork made a point of saying that physicians go through many years of training, and even they don’t rely solely on symptoms to diagnose a heart attack. I believe he was trying to kindly relay the opinion that we shouldn’t try to diagnose ourselves after reading the symptoms of a heart problem. These lists are simply a guide. He advised that if you have any risk factors, you and your physician should work out a program to get your health back on track.
What about your elder? How can you tell if he or she is having a heart attack?
Most elderly people have a number of issues that can make subtle signs of a heart attack hard to pinpoint. We also must consider that a trip to ER can be traumatic to an elder, particularly one who has dementia. So, decision making can get tricky.
Dr. Stork suggests that you watch for something very different in how they feel, especially overwhelming weakness. With elders, too, if your loved one says he or she doesn’t feel “right,” that may be a sign to rush to the ER. The symptoms of a heart attack or stroke can be subtle and when there are abundant aches and pains already, a true emergency can be very hard to pinpoint. But unusual weakness and not feeling “right” in some vague sense would be two additional things to watch for.
When I asked Dr. Stork about taking elders to the ER, he emphasized the importance of a family member or caregiver going along. Most of you have already made a few ER runs with your elders. I’ve lost count of the number of trips I’ve made throughout the years. Therefore, I was especially pleased to hear Dr. Stork place so much emphasis on the caregiver’s presence. This highlights huge progress from my early days with elders when I felt I was, by some doctors, looked at more as an unwelcome extra than part of the solution.
Things have changed. A prepared caregiver can make a vital difference when it comes to the ER experience. Be prepared with urgently needed information, try to remain calm and give them the help they need. Today’s doctors will appreciate your help.