Heart trouble can strike anytime, as legendary NFL coach Mike Ditka saw last week when he felt sick while golfing and checked into a Naples hospital. He had a mild heart attack, and doctors inserted a pacemaker, his agent said.
Whether you’re traveling or at home, Ditka’s case is an example of the single most important step people can take to survive a heart attack, said Dr. Asad Sawar, a Florida Hospital cardiologist, or heart expert.
“The biggest issue is people not paying attention to their symptoms,” he said. “Getting checked out at the emergency room won’t spoil your vacation, but it could save your life.”
Like Coach Ditka, you should know the symptoms of a heart attack, such as pain or discomfort in the chest or other areas of the upper body, shortness of breath, cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
If you’re being treated for a heart condition, Dr. Sawar says there are other steps you can take to minimize issues while traveling and be ready to respond in case the worst happens.
Talk to your doctor
Each patient’s case is different — one person may be watching their pacemaker batteries while another is paying attention to abnormal heart rhythms, or arrhythmias.
“Only your doctor will be able to give you advice that fits your condition,” Dr. Sawar says.
Your doctor will likely advise you based on your health risk by suggesting more precautions for higher-risk patients and fewer for those whose condition is less serious. Seriously ill patients will have to decide for themselves how much risk they are willing to take by traveling.
“As long as they have a clear understanding of the risks they’re undertaking, it’s within reason to consider traveling,” he says.
If you have an arrhythmia, it could be helpful to have a copy of your electrocardiogram (ECG) in the event of an emergency. If you can, use a phone to take a picture of it in the doctor’s office.
As with life at home, exercise and nutrition are key parts of managing your heart disease on vacation.
Planes, trains and automobiles
For someone with heart disease, sitting for long periods is more than uncomfortable; it can also raise your risk of a blood clot or other emergency.
Here’s Dr. Sawar’s advice for staying safe during travel:
- Get up: Take breaks every few hours to walk around. If you’re flying, try to reserve an aisle seat.
- Wear a compression stocking: These special socks can increase circulation and reduce the risk of blood clots.
- Take aspirin: Unless you have a health problem preventing you from doing so, take an aspirin before you travel. Speak with your doctor before taking any medication.
- Pacemakers and metal detectors: As you may know, they don’t mix. Your doctor may have given you a card that will alert security personnel to give you a pat down instead of a scan.
- Consider calling ahead: The Transportation Safety Administration has set up a helpline to assist people with disabilities and medical conditions. Call 1-855-787-2227 if you have questions about screening and other procedures.
Watch your habits
People tend to overeat when they’re on vacation, particularly on cruises.
“The rules do not go out the window once you get on a boat,” Dr. Sawar says. That includes watching how much alcohol you drink.
Likewise, the health routines you establish at home — like checking your blood pressure and your weight — should be maintained as much as possible on vacation. If you use a pulse oximeter to measure your oxygen saturation, it may help to take it on vacation, too.
Be sure to take an extra supply of medication, too, and put it in your carry-on luggage or personal item in case your checked baggage is lost or delayed.
Finally, people with heart conditions should avoid activities that jerk their body around, like roller coasters and zip lining.
Before you travel, pick out a hospital you trust so you don’t need to make the same decision during an emergency.
And, just like Ditka decided to get checked out while on the golf course, don’t hesitate to go to the emergency room if you experience any heart attack symptoms.