Hurricane Katrina destroyed Madeline Saavedra's home in 2005. But it was 14 months later that the storm could have cost her her life.
Saavedra, 58, who resides in St. Bernard Parish, La., one of the hardest-hit areas in metro New Orleans, was evacuated during Katrina as her home flooded with 12 feet of water. She and her husband returned seven months later to find the entire neighborhood, including their house, destroyed.
They moved into a FEMA trailer on their front lawn to begin the task of shoveling out the three feet of mud the storm left inside their home. But about five months into the process, Saavedra began complaining of pain on the right side of her body and between her shoulders.
"I thought, 'Gee whiz, I must have picked up something [heavy] that I shouldn't have,'" Saavedra recalled.
But the pain worsened to the point where she could no longer lift her right arm. One day in October 2006, she finally took a break from the stress of rebuilding the home she had lived in for 25 years and checked into the emergency room at Tulane Medical Center.
Further testing revealed that she had suffered a heart attack and still had several blockages in her arteries. Saavedra was immediately taken in for open-heart surgery, a triple bypass operation.
"I think that might have pushed it over the edge, the stress of it all," Saavedra said. "[There were] so many people who we knew who drowned or died or moved away, moms and dads and young people, people who weren't sick before the storm. It took a lot from us."
New evidence finds that Saavedra is not the only one whose stress levels in the aftermath of Katrina may have led to a heart attack. Researchers from Tulane University in New Orleans looked at hospital records for heart attack patients admitted to Tulane Medical Center in the two years before and the two years after the hospital reopened, which was five months after Katrina hit. They found a three-fold increase in heart attacks at the Tulane University Hospital more than two years after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the city.
Moreover, the researchers found that those treated for heart attacks post-Katrina were more likely to undergo dramatic surgeries aimed at re-opening clogged arteries, a possible indication that these patients were suffering more severe heart attacks.
The study echoes past research, which has found that rates of heart problems and other illnesses tend to spike after tragedies and natural disasters. In one 2008 study, for example, researchers found that even those with no prior history of cardiovascular disease experienced heart problems three years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Lead author of the latest study, Dr. Arnand Irimpen, associate professor in the department of cardiology at Tulane University, said the rise in heart attack rates in the wake of Katrina owes a great deal to the impact of stress on those who lost their homes, loved ones and even the basic necessities of every day life such as food, water and health care.