For much of the world, contracting COVID-19, becoming gravely ill, and possibly dying has become the great fear. Millions are quarantining and social distancing and taking all the steps they can to protect themselves and their loved ones. Working from home has become the norm for so many who used to commute into work every day. No one’s going to the movies or out to eat or to concerts. Weddings are cancelled, as are graduations, and every other large group gathering. And the kids are home. Alllll the time.
Unfortunately, as much as all of these steps are smart and helpful, it’s quite possible that this fear of catching such a potentially deadly virus is making us do other things that compromise our safety and health. At least, that’s what doctors are saying, as they aren’t seeing nearly the same number of ER patients as they normally do. It seems that as much as hospitals have been admitting COVID-19 patients in rapid succession over the past few months, for many medical facilities around the country, the rest of their beds and hallways are more empty than ever.
Doctors fear that this is due to people ignoring their health symptoms because they’re afraid of going to the hospital—a scary notion, because heart attacks and strokes don’t take a break just because we’re living through a pandemic.
Sam Torbati, MD, co-chair of the Ruth and Harry Roman Emergency Department at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, provided Scary Mommy with some important information that should help us stay safe, healthy, and ease our concerns about going to the emergency room if we need to.
First of all, Dr. Torbati says we should never ignore major health issues like signs of a heart attack (i.e., chest pain, especially if it spreads to your arms, neck, or back, and especially if combined with shortness of breath, cold sweat, or dizziness) or stroke (i.e., difficulty speaking, paralysis, numbness, vision problems, headache, and/or difficult walking).
Dr. Torbati says other equally severe medical issues that require immediate attention are major head trauma, internal bleeding, severe infection like staph infections or sepsis, and sudden severe pain (especially in the head, chest or abdomen).
All of these symptoms could signify what Dr. Torbati calls “time-sensitive” medical conditions, meaning there’s no time to waste. There’s no time to wait it out or sleep it off. Without immediate help, the patient could face permanent damage to their body or death.
So between possible exposure to COVID-19 vs. a severe medical issue like a heart attack, stroke, or sepsis, which is more severe? Which is higher risk? The second one, without a doubt, Dr. Torbati says. And that’s why it’s so concerning to medical professionals that patients aren’t coming to the ER even though we know these frightening situations are still happening.
Here’s what this ER doctor wants us to know.
First of all, among the various public places Americans might go right now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the safest truly is a hospital. These buildings are sanitized more than any other place, everyone is wearing masks and gloves and washes their hands constantly, all employees are screened before entering and sent home if they show any sign of the virus, and hospitals are sectioned off so that COVID-19 patients are in a completely different area than other patients.
And, even once a patient is in the building, many hospitals are taking further protective measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. According to an article on cedars-sinai.org, “Using a telemedicine camera, patients who come to the Emergency Department with stroke symptoms can be evaluated by a stroke specialist until their COVID-19 status can be established. These precautions limit opportunities for transmission of the virus and could help save lives,” explains Patrick Lyden, MD, professor of Neurology at Cedars-Sinai.
Dr. Torbati confidently says that because of all the safety precautions hospital staff take, “the risk of contracting COVID-19 in a hospital setting is exceedingly low.” What’s far more dangerous is ignoring a potential condition that could threaten your life.
He also says that if a patient would rather go the tele-health route first and communicate with their doctor from home as an initial step, that’s fine. And for milder symptoms, this is encouraged right now. But any medical professional—if you tell them you have chest pain and dizziness, or you fell off a ladder and suffered head trauma, or you’re suffering from sudden severe abdominal pain that you’ve never experienced before—is still going to tell you to go to the ER, Dr. Torbati says.
And you need to listen to them like your life depends on it, because it does.
Finally, we asked this ER physician—who sees the most extreme and life-threatening medical cases a doctor can see—what we can do to look out for each other during this time of quarantine and isolation.
And he said that as much as we’re told to “social distance,” we need to ensure we aren’t completely distancing ourselves from one another, meaning we need to check in, especially on our most vulnerable.
“Although physical distancing is important in how we manage this virus and protect others from infection, loneliness can cause a lot of problems,” he cautions, “emotionally, mentally, and physically.”
He encourages us to ensure that those who rely on others are properly cared for and have their needs met, have enough food, have their medication, etc. And that we connect with them in some way—a safe way—even if not physically.
Because if basic needs are neglected, Dr. Torbati warns, underlying health issues will get worse. “Diabetes will get out of control, blood pressure will get out of control, glaucoma… and all of a sudden chronic health issues that a normally maintained can turn into a life-threatening emergency.”
He goes on to add, “At an absolute minimum, maintaining some sort of visual contact with high risk family members and the elderly, whether it’s with FaceTime or any other method, is very important. And, if you’re interacting with a loved one and they’re not acting right, there might be something going on that requires immediate medical attention.”
The truth is, financial pressures as people go through unemployment combined with the isolation of quarantine and fear of getting sick or a loved one getting sick are increasing rates of anxiety, stress, and depression. And anxiety, stress, and depression aren’t just mental health issues—they affect our physical health too. So we need to check on each other and care for one another, as we care for ourselves during this period of quarantine.
Finally, the last and equally crucial piece of advice Dr. Torbati gives is that people generally have good intuition, and we should listen to our bodies. If something hurts or doesn’t feel right, that’s our body trying to tell us something, and we should not ignore that message.
Many medical doctors and professionals like Dr. Torbati fear that when they can look back on this time a year or two from now, the mortality rate will be not just COVID-19 related, but also that many deaths will be because of other health issues that were not managed and led to suffering and death.
If you’re having any symptoms of a life-or-limb-threatening medical condition, your safest bet is to go to the emergency room. Your hospital is ready for you and knows how to best care for you, even during this pandemic. In fact, if your body is in serious medical distress, the hospital is actually the safest place for you to be.