Hunting season is open season on heart attacks

Sportsmen and women from low elevations should exercise caution

Northwest Colorado may be a gem of a hunting destination, but the area's relatively high elevation can wreak havoc on visitors' lungs.

Each year, emergency medical technicians are dispatched at least a few times to answer calls that hunters are suffering from a lack of oxygen or experiencing a heart attack, said Richard Nichols, an EMT with The Memorial Hospital.

Typically, hunters travel for days straight to arrive in Northwest Colorado and head out on a hunt the morning after. It's a scenario that can be deadly, he said.

"People are supposed to acclimate for 48 to 72 hours and climb only about 3,000 feet at time," he said.

Elevation in Northwest Colorado ranges between 6,000 and 12,000 feet.

That's a large elevation gain for visitors who arrive from sea level, said Susan Bowler, a public health nurse manager with the Visiting Nurse Association.

"People who come to town shouldn't just start exercising," she said. "Give yourself a day or two to adjust."

Bowler said it's also important that visitors remember to stay hydrated and acclimate for at least a day. Older people may be more affected by spikes in elevation, she said.

"I think most healthy people who are used to exercising will be OK," Bowler said. "But most of them probably get excited when they get here and want to go out and walk 20 miles."

At least 35,000 hunters descended on Northwest Colorado in 2002 to hunt elk, according the Colorado Department of Wildlife.

The numbers of calls for chest pains increased last fall shortly after EMTs from the Craig Rural Fire Protection District decided to start answering those medical calls, said EMT K.C. Hume. Those kinds of calls taper off toward December or near the end of the hunting season, he said.

"Around hunting season, we see an influx of calls," he said.

Hume advised that people feeling chest pains should dial 911 or, if they have a driver, start traveling toward the nearest hospital. However, someone who is experiencing chest pains shouldn't drive themselves to the hospital, because they may further endanger themselves or other drivers.

Colorado State Patrol dispatch received a call Monday about a man experiencing chest pains who tried to drive himself to the hospital. Officials could not provide further details.

While heart attacks are a concern for out-of-state hunters, altitude sickness also can be a common occurrence, Nichols said.

It is characterized by fatigue, nausea, shortness of breath, sleep disturbance and a rapid and forceful heartbeat.

Nichols said EMTs often administer oxygen to those patients or try to get them to a lower elevation.

"Even getting down 600 feet can make a difference," he said.

This year's hunting season has emergency service workers ready to answer a new batch of calls to assist out-of-state hunters who may be experiencing respiratory problems or heart attacks.

"Most people who come here think they're a full bill of health," Nichols said. "Anybody who feels fatigued for any unknown reason should be evaluated. It's harder to save somebody who doesn't have a pulse."

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or ahatten@craigdailypress.com.

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