Snow blizzard: Answering your medical questions

Robert Shesser, M.D.
Chairman, Emergency Medicine, George Washington University Hospital
Wednesday, February 10, 2010; 3:00 PM

With a whiteout paralyzing the region and gale force winds causing road, rail and flight disruptions, the metropolitan area is being taxed to the limit. But what about emergency services? What happens if someone gets sick and needs a doctor?

Robert Shesser, M.D. and chairman of emergency medicine at the George Washington University Hospital, was online Wednesday, Feb. 10, at 3 p.m. ET to answer your questions and offer advice on what to do.


Robert Shesser: Dr. Robert Shesser here to reply to any questions concerning the storm


Glen Burnie, Md.: After shoveling snow for several hours and you come in the house with backache and soreness, what steps can one take to relieve soreness in back and limbs?

Robert Shesser: The best treatment are anti-inflammatory agents such as Aleve or Motrin. These can be purchased over the counter and are generally safe and effective


Arlington, Va.: My wife is due in a week. Sibley is our hospital. What should we do if she goes into labor? I cannot drive due to recent foot surgery.

Robert Shesser: call 911 for emergent assistance. You might also want to call Sibley and see if they have made any arrangements to get moms who are about to deliver in.


Alexandria, Va.: Well, if I didn't know it before, I do now. I need to be active to feel well. All this sitting around makes me feel like crud.

Robert Shesser: Yes it certainly does.


Cabin John: The power outage ruined the food in our fridge and freezer and we can't get to the store, so we're hungrily eyeing the cans of soup, Spaghetti-O's, etc., that we stored in the basement after 9/11. But the cans have an expiration date of 2004. Can we still eat them? If we can't resist, what are the risks/symptoms of food poisoning?

Robert Shesser: The manufacturer would never countenance that, but if the can is not deformed, the vacuum seems intact when you open the can and the food smells ok, it should be ok in an emergency if you really heat it up well. The symptoms of food poisoning are essentially vomiting and diarrhea and will appear between 4-16 hours after ingestion.


Fairfax, Va.: Why does shoveling snow seem to cause heart attacks? Is it an age range thing?

Robert Shesser: It's probably somewhat of a myth, but strenuous isometric exercise in the cold when someone is not used to it, increases the work of the heart significantly. Should there be a preexisting blockage of the artery that supplies the heart, the demand for blood exceeds the supply and a heart event could ensue.


Washington, D.C.: How are the emergency medical runs working at GW Hospital? Are they able to get to out of the way places? Is the hospital crowded now with snow-related accidents or illnesses?

Robert Shesser: Patient demand is way down during the storm; looks like the normal distribution of medical and trauma complaints.


Capitol Hill: How do you decide when something is bad enough to shovel out the car and drive through a blizzard to an ER? It seems most doctors are hesitant to give an opinion over the phone. The issue in question is blood in urine for four days with no pain, fever, etc. (Sorry if this is too gross for the Post!) It seems a bit concerning but I imagine that the ERs are full of people who've broken their limbs while shoveling snow off their roof and that this sort of problem is really better to deal with next week.

Robert Shesser: Without pain or fever and in the absence of significant underlying illness, it can probably wait until tomorrow. ED's are very slow today and if you can get to an underground Metro, it would be quicker to be seen today than tomorrow


Fairfax, Va.: Why all the warnings about shoveling snow? We are usually encouraged to be active, even exert ourselves some. I would think running a distance would put more strain on the heart.

Robert Shesser: It is fine for healthy people; I think the warnings are mostly for those not used to exercise; in addition; it does stress the back a bit


College Park, Md.: When I shovel I bend at the knee, but I seem to always have back pain or back fatigue when I'm done. How can I prevent this?

Robert Shesser: Try taking some anti-infammatories prior to beginning work and then Tylenol after; it won't make you pain free, but should reduce the discomfort


Bethesda, Md.: How do you know if you're suffering from hypothermia? We've been without heat and electricity.

Robert Shesser: You feel very fatigued and sleepy; it is rare that someone inside would be significantly hypothermic, but could happen in the presence of a number of underlying medical conditions; if you have a thermometer, you could take your temperature; if below about 96 Fahrenheit, than hypothermia would be a consideration


Washington, D.C.: True confession time: we don't have any kind of first aid kit at home, besides band-aids, anti-bacterial gel and aspirin. What would you recommend we keep on hand for this kind of "enforced staycation" when getting to the pharmacy/doctor seems impossible but calling an ambulance seems unnecessary?

Robert Shesser: I don't have a commercially produced first aid kit either, but you have a good start. substitute Tylenol for aspirin, get a few larger band aids or dressing, an anti-inflammatory and you should be fine


Shirlington, Va.: We're hearing a lot about carbon monoxide poisoning during these big snowstorms. What are some tips on avoiding that happening?

Robert Shesser: Make sure any device that burns gas or oil is working properly. Don't use a fire or charcoal briquettes inside unless it is in a properly vented fireplace. also, you should have a carbon monoxide detector in your home in addition to a smoke detector


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