A new survey is shining a light on the dire impact the pandemic has had on those living with heart disease or stroke.
A Heart and Stroke survey of 370 health professionals across the country found that the pandemic has created difficult-to-access care, delayed diagnosis and treatment, increased inequities, caused more severe outcomes, and stalled critical heart and stroke research.
The survey found nine in 10 health care professionals and researchers were concerned that the health of people living with heart disease or stroke had gotten worse during the pandemic, and eight in 10 said the delay in diagnosis or treatment was the biggest issue inflicted by the pandemic.
“This is all very concerning,” said Patrice Lindsay, director of health systems for Heart and Stroke, in an interview with Global News.
“People who are looking after our patients every day (and) seeing these changes are seeing sicker patients — patients who are not going to have the same kind of recovery they may otherwise have,” Lindsay said.
“And to have that validated by our frontline health professionals is very alarming and we’re only just seeing the tip of the iceberg. We think the true magnitude, we will not know for several months or years to come.”
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Lindsay said even non-heart disease or stroke patients who contract COVID-19 are likely to have negative effects on their heart and brain health.
“Those who already had healthy hearts and had healthy brains but contracted COVID along the way, likely have damage to their hearts and or their brains that they’ll now have to deal with on a long term basis,” she said, adding that the pandemic has caused many people to ignore symptoms and delay coming into the hospital, often resulting in more severe outcomes.
The survey also revealed that nearly half of experts surveyed had concerns those living with heart disease or stroke who were vulnerable to social and economic inequities prior to the pandemic, were now at an even greater risk. It also highlighted the strain on healthcare workers and stalled critical research.
“(We need to) really encourage people having symptoms, our general public having symptoms of heart disease and stroke, to come to hospital right away, not to wait, not to be (worried) that they might catch COVID,” Lindsay said.
“Really funding research and getting answers to start to study what some of these impacts are — we really need to do that. Sharing information about what medications and treatments are working and not working, those are things that really need to be put in place with government support.”
“People like me should have died”
Courtney Chartrand, 26, is one of numerous people who have first-hand experience with how the pandemic impacted those living with heart disease and stroke.
Chartrand suffered a stroke in May 2020 when she was just 24 years old.
“I was at my parents’ house. I was helping my sister pack up her room, they were moving out, and she left the room, and then came back and I was seizing on the ground,” Chartrand told Global News.
“So they called the ambulance and everything, since I don’t have a seizure disorder, and I was taken to the hospital and they found out that I had had a stroke.”
After days in intensive care, the doctors removed half of Chartrand’s skull due to severe swelling and bleeding in her brain.
She lived without half her skull for the next three months, partially due to the severity of her brain swelling, and partially due to pandemic-related delays in the healthcare system. Chartrand was able to go home about three weeks into that stint, wearing a helmet at all times. She says while she was grateful to be at home and not in the hospital, but those three months were a trying time.
“That was a lot of stress and anxiety because I couldn’t lay on the right side of my head at any time, I couldn’t drive myself, I couldn’t do a lot of things, so I was really waiting for that skull piece to come,” she said, adding that she was constantly worried her procedure could be delayed even further due to the pandemic.
“I was constantly worried until I was literally in the operating room that I was going to be bumped for not being important enough.”
Chartrand still dealt with pandemic-related impacts even after her procedure, as she had to attend follow-up appointments alone.
“Here I am without half a skull, or when I got it back, I still had a swollen brain or bleeding in my brain, and I can’t understand what the doctors are telling me, and I’m forced to remember (it) to relay onto my family later,” she said. “So that was torturous for me to have to use my broken brain in a way that everyone else uses their working brain, just because I look fine.”
Chartrand says she now lives day-to-day, but every day is an improvement. She is focusing on strengthening her brain and moving her body, even recently competing in a mini-triathlon. She also has a clear message for those choosing not to get vaccinated.
“If you can get a vaccine, you need to. People like me should have died. And if it was a different time and a different place and I couldn’t have got the care I needed, I would have died, like I shouldn’t be here statistically,” Chartrand said.
“So I would want the people who are taking beds just because of a choice they’ve made, to just know that their choice could be life or death for someone.”