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With bad weather on the way, Cleveland & Akron ER docs share how to stay safe in the cold and snow

Families in Shaker Heights gather for a snow shoveling party to clear the ice rink in the Onaway neighborhood after a major snowfall over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. [Matt Erman / Ideastream Public Media]
Families in Shaker Heights gather for a snow shoveling party to clear the ice rink in the Onaway neighborhood after a major snowfall over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. [Matt Erman / Ideastream Public Media]

As severe weather continues to plow through Northeast Ohio this winter, emergency departments in the Cleveland and Akron areas are seeing an uptick in injuries related to shoveling, falling on ice and dangerously cold temperatures.

Cleveland Clinic Akron General’s emergency rooms are seeing more patients with winter-related injuries this year than in the last few years, said Dr. Thomas Rench, a physician in the hospital’s Level 1 trauma center.

“The last couple years have been a little bit lower because people tended to be inside more with COVID going around,” Rench said. “We still are seeing quite a bit, and it’s definitely ramped up from last year.”

Doctors are treating patients for hip and wrist injuries due to falling on ice, as well as chest pain from shoveling snow, Rench said. Shoveling can be a trigger for heart attacks, he said.

“We do see people that come in with chest pain or a heart attack from the exertion of pushing snow around and lifting it, especially the heavier, wetter snow is classic for causing that,” Rench added. “If you’re shoveling snow and start to have chest pain, please immediately stop, and contact, at the very least, your doctor.”

With another major snowstorm predicted to hit later this week, Rench advises patients stock up on day-to-day necessities – such as groceries and medications – beforehand to minimize the times they need to leave their house and head out on the icy roads and sidewalks.

Once the snow falls and it’s time to shovel, Dr. Sarah Tehranisa, medical director of the emergency department at University Hospitals in Cleveland, suggests people take breaks every so often to let their heart rate come down and warm up inside.

More than a foot of snow pummeled much of the region over the Martin Luther King Jr. Dayholiday weekend. At that time, UH's emergency department saw a spike in patients having heart attacks from shoveling the heavy snow, Tehranisa said.

Emergency rooms are also seeing more cold-related injuries, such as frostbite and hypothermia, than in years past, Tehranisa added.

“I don’t know if that is, unfortunately, related to people not being able to heat their homes and things like that with the economic situation, but it does seem like we’ve seen a few more of those,” Tehranisa said. “We’ve also had incredibly cold temperatures, more so, than I think we see on an average year, and that may also be contributing.”

Tehranisa recommends dressing warmly and appropriately for the temperature if heading outside, and being mindful of the wind chill, which can make it feel even colder.

She also suggests staying away from alternative heating methods, such as ovens and gas heaters, as those can cause house fires if not tended to properly.

Both Tehranisa and Rench have treated patients with house fire-related burns and carbon monoxide poisoning this year.

“It’s something that sometimes people forget about – keeping their furnaces and heat supply well-maintained so it’s less likely to cause a problem,” Rench said.

If an individual needs additional heat sources, such as space heaters and electric blankets, remember to turn them off and unplug them after using, she added.

“Just really being aware of your surroundings and what you can do to minimize your risk is really important,” Tehranisa said.

If an injury does occur and is severe, both Tehranisa and Rench recommend going to the emergency department to get checked out.

Staffing shortages and an increase in COVID-19 and flu patients have overwhelmed emergency departments at times this winter, Rench said.

“We do have to triage the worst cases first. We always take the life- and limb-threatening emergencies first,” he said. “Unfortunately, sometimes people wait a long time, and we all take that as a personal goal to keep that down as long as much as we possibly can while providing appropriate and good care to everyone.”

However, COVID-19 cases are dropping significantly now in the area, he added, and Tehranisa said emergency departments have capacity to treat any injuries that arise in the upcoming snowy weather.

“We are always busy, but we are always here,” Tehranisa said.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.