Emergency-room doctors in La Plata County joined deer and elk on heightened alert when big-game season opened Saturday the ungulates for obvious reasons, the physicians for hunters who overtax their hearts at high altitude.
They dont keep count, but its a given that theyll see more victims of heart attacks, high-altitude sickness or the more serious cerebral edema when big-game season comes around, Dr. Jack McManus and Dr. Stephen Lipnik said last week.
We see people from lower elevations reach 9,000 to 10,000 feet and start having problems, said McManus, medical director of the emergency department at Mercy Regional Medical Center. Theyre not all heart attacks because we get hunters with chest pains and high-altitude sickness.
Lipnik, an interventional cardiologist at Mercy, put it this way:
Heart attacks kill more hunters than stray bullets.
Jan Naegle, a registered nurse and manager of the emergency room at Animas Surgical Hospital, said most of her cases are injuries from a fall or being thrown from a horse.
But we also see people with altitude sickness, Naegle said. When someone comes here from sea level, they often have a hard time with the altitude.
Dr. Peter Hackett, executive director of the Institute for Altitude Medicine in Telluride, said unaccustomed exercise at high altitude can precipitate a heart attack.
Altitude sickness, which feels like a hangover, is common, said Hackett, who practiced medicine in Nepal for six years and who reached the peak of Mount Everest (the last 3,000 feet alone) in 1981. But its a bad idea to be a sedentary slob and go elk hunting.
Outfitters urge the go-easy approach, too.
We recommend caution all the time, Randy Palmer at Over the Hill Outfitters said Friday. We encourage our guests to not push too hard.
Joe Lewandowski, a spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, recalled trekking at 18,000 feet in Nepal in 1998.
I was in better shape than some of the others, but my brain was rattling around in my head, Lewandowski said. Hunters coming from lower altitudes often arent physically prepared.
Butch Knowlton, director of the La Plata County Office of Emergency Management, responds to more backcountry crises during hunting season than in other months.
We see the largest number of people in the mountains then, Knowlton said. But the incidents involve more than heart attacks.
People fall off their ATV, have a tree fall on them or tumble off a cliff, Knowlton said.
Weve seen all of those incidents as well as heart attacks, Knowlton said.
If theres a bright side, Knowlton said, its that advances in communication systems permit quicker response.
Paul Gibson, director of the emergency department at Mercy, said a network of services including the Mercy emergency clinic at Purgatory, a Durango Fire & Rescue Authority station five minutes away and the helicopter stationed at Mercy allows emergency responders to act sooner, particularly in areas along U.S. Highway 550 north of Durango.
The health risks of Southwest Colorados high altitude, where strenuous activity frequently occurs at 8,000 feet and higher, are all the more evident when compared with some heart attacks in Europe.
A paper presented by the Medical University of Innsbruck at the European Society of Cardiology congress in 2010 looked at 170 mostly German and Dutch winter sports enthusiasts who suffered heart attacks while engaged in strenuous activity in the Tyrolean Alps.
Only 19 percent had a known cardiac condition, and 56 percent suffered their attack within two days of arrival.
The heart attacks occurred at a mean elevation of 4,429 feet, and the victims lived at a mean elevation of 557 feet, the study said.
Eight thousand feet elevation is the magic number in Southwest Colorado, McManus and Lipnik said. Prevention and caution are the operative words in avoiding heart and other health problems at high altitudes, they said.