News

Friday, August 14, 2020 - Scared to death: How fear of COVID-19 nearly cost one Lacombe man his life


Anna and Gary Kern are photographed at Tiller of the Land, the garden center they run in Lacombe, on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. (Photo by Tim San Fillippo / STHS)

By Mike Scott, mscott@stph.org

When he woke up in the middle of the night with chest pains back in May, Gary Kern was understandably scared.

Nobody, after all, wants to have a heart attack, and Kern was afraid that’s just what he was having. He would turn out to be correct on that point.

But because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, he was also wary of going to the hospital. And so he decided to wait.

“I kind of just tried to fight through it, you might say,” Kern said.

That decision almost killed him.

Kern’s story is illustrative of a troubling trend in the healthcare industry in which people are delaying both routine care and emergency care out of COVID fears – and often paying a steep price as a result.

“Honestly, I can understand why people might be concerned,” said Leslie Kelt, the director of infection prevention at St. Tammany Health System, where Kern eventually received care. “But the truth is, we’ve put in place stringent infection prevention processes – as well as keeping all COVID patients in isolation – so the risk of catching the coronavirus at our facilities just isn’t anywhere near what people think it is. It’s not even in the same ballpark. Not in the same ZIP code.

“And that just compounds the COVID tragedy,” Kelt continued. “People are getting sick because they’re putting off needed healthcare, and they’re doing it unnecessarily.”

For the 65-year-old Kern – who, after retiring from the petroleum industry, now helps wife Anna run Tiller of the Land garden center in Lacombe – it all started around 1 a.m. that May morning, when he awoke with tightness in his chest.

“Nothing major,” he said. “I could actually get up and move around the house.”

He thought stress might have been the cause, he said, but when the tightness didn’t subside by 4 a.m., he roused Anna. They made the decision to call an ambulance. It wasn’t the last decision they’d have to make that day.

The EMTs arrived quickly, Gary said, but the tests they ran on him were inconclusive, so it was unclear if he was having a heart attack. With thoughts of COVID-19 lingering in his mind, Gary signed paperwork refusing transport to the hospital.

That’s when Anna noticed something. She’s not sure whether the EMTs were actually trying to send her a message, but she received one anyway.

“I just kind of stepped back and watched the fact that they weren’t leaving, even after the paperwork was signed,” she said. “And I thought, ‘There’s something more to this.’” 

As they lingered, the EMTs reviewed other heart attack warning signs they said Gary should watch for. Among them: jaw pain.

As it turns out, Gary had been experiencing exactly that. “So that’s when I made the decision to go ahead and go in,” he said.

Good thing. The doctors at St. Tammany Health System’s Covington hospital found 100% blockage in one of the two major arteries providing blood to Gary’s heart. The other had 40% blockage. He was rushed into surgery, where doctors inserted a stent to keep his blocked artery open.

“I was going down the hall, they were pushing me to the room where the do the stents and everything, and I made the comment, ‘I don’t think I’m having a heart attack,’” Gary remembered with a chuckle. “And (the doctor) said, ‘Boy, you’re living in denial.’”

The surgery was a success. Kern is still recovering, but he was at work at Anna’s garden center on a recent Tuesday. He was moving more slowly than he otherwise might, he said – but he was alive. And, even after a return trip to the hospital in August for an issue related to his heart attack, he was COVID-free.

Reflecting on the whole experience, he said one thing he learned was that, while it’s normal to be scared, it wasn’t COVID-19 that should have concerned him. At the hospital, he noted, a number of COVID precautions have been put in place: He was tested upon arrival, COVID patients were kept isolated from non-COVID patients even in the emergency room, masks were required for everyone. The list goes on.

Realizing how close he came to making the wrong decision, he decided to share his story in the hope that others learn from it.  

“When you make these decisions, you’re weighing that you’re scared to go, but we really need to take care of our health in this,” he said.

Anna agreed.

“We’re grandparents, and that’s one thing I kept telling Gary: Don’t exclude medical care at this time just because we’re scared of COVID,” she said. “‘You want to see your grandkids, don’t you? Well, let’s go get you taken care of.’”

That’s music to the ears of Kelt and her infection prevention team at the hospital. They’ve been working overtime since March to identify and implement strategies to keep the hospital as safe as possible from COVID – and to give non-COVID patients peace of mind when they arrive for care, whether it’s for a routine checkup or an emergency.

“We’re prepared to treat everything we normally would, including heart attacks and strokes,” Kelt said. “If you need us, know we have a safe environment. We are prepared, and we have the people, the environment and the staff to take care of you. We’re there for you in every way possible.”

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Visit STPH.org/COVID-19  for the latest information on coronavirus in St. Tammany Parish.