Holiday stress causes spike in heart attacks

VASHON ISLAND, Wash. -- The holidays can certainly be stressful, and it shows in the emergency room.

Harborview Medical Center officials say the hospital brings in extra doctors to handle all the additional heart patients and trauma cases this time of year.

Studies show that heart attacks increase by a full third when the holidays roll around, and heart attack deaths peak on Christmas, the day after Christmas and New Year's Day.

Local doctors expect that influx of patients, and now they plan for it.

"There's a spike in not only people dying from natural causes, but a spike in heart attacks, or what we call myocardial infarction," said emergency room physician Dr. David Baker.

As an attending physician at Harborview and the medical director of Airlift Northwest, Baker often spends his holidays helping others recover.

"Stress levels are high and stress is bad for the heart," he said. "Patients are less likely to go get help, ignore symptoms. Then there's overindulgence. People drink. There's depression."

It can all boil over, and that's exactly what happened to Lisa Freeman, who nearly died two weeks ago when she had a heart attack.

"My heart stopped beating," she said. "I don't remember complaining of arm pains, being intubated, being life-flighted."

Freeman's family has a simple holiday message for others.

"Life's too short. Don't get stressed out, period," said Freeman's mother, Carol.

Freeman credits a fast and flawless response chain for saving her life. Her husband immediately started CPR and a volunteer continued. Then, the fire department shocked her three times and Airlift Northwest flew her to Harborview.

She's now in cardiac rehab at Virgina Mason Medical Center.