According to the American Heart Association (AHA), recently hospitals have been treating fewer heart attack and stroke patients, though it's unlikely these events are actually on the decline. In fact, they're the world's leading cause of death, and people with cardiovascular conditions have a higher risk of severe illness from the coronavirus.
That's why AHA recently started its Don't Die of Doubt campaign, which encourages people experiencing heart attack or stroke symptoms to call 911.
One woman, Charley Bednarsh, 72, who dealt with exactly what AHA is now trying to prevent, shared her story on TODAY.
A little over eight weeks ago, Bednarsh, who lives in New York City and takes medication for cholesterol and high blood pressure, noticed some back pain. The month prior, she'd had a respiratory illness and suspected it was COVID-19. In April, she collapsed a few times at home from the back pain and struggled to walk even short distances.
Explaining why she didn't contact her doctor, Bednarsh told TODAY 3rd Hour co-host Dylan Dreyer, "First of all, I didn't know it was symptoms of a heart attack ... I figured there were so many sick people out there, and I didn't want to go to the hospital because I didn't want to flood their resources."
"The pain got really severe, but I just didn't think it was a heart attack," she continued. "I figured I was still alive so I was doing OK."
Eventually, Bednarsh decided to seek medical care because her therapy dog, Atticus, tipped her off that something was truly wrong.
"One morning, I collapsed on the floor, and he got up and he literally started to nudge me and howl, and he kept howling," she recalled. "I finally decided maybe I should call the doctor, and actually I called the doctor just because I figured I needed an antibody test, maybe I had COVID. I was Googling my symptoms so I was convinced I was OK."
"I wasn't, clearly," Bednarsh added.
In mid-April, she went to the hospital, and the experience was not at all what she expected.
"It was so safe ... I was never afraid of getting COVID. The doctors were amazing. It was just a different experience than what I anticipated, which is why I really participated in this campaign," she explained. "I could've died doubting what was going on. When I was told I had a heart attack, I actually thought they were talking to somebody behind me. It didn't make sense to me."
So, when should you seek medical care if you believe you might be experiencing cardiovascular symptoms?
"As soon as you have any questions," Dr. Regina Benjamin, who is a former U.S. Surgeon General and is on the AHA's board, told Dylan. "Unfortunately we see this too often."
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, back, jaw or stomach
- Shortness of breath with or without chest comfort
- Breaking out in a cold sweat
The AHA stresses that if you experience any of the symptoms outlined above, call 911 or go to a hospital.
"Sometimes you just feel like you don't feel right or something's not right," Benjamin said. "Regardless, if there's any doubt, go to the hospital. Call 911."
Bednarsh added: "We can be smart and we can be strong during the pandemic ... It is really safe in the hospitals. They know what they're doing, and they're really there to help you. You're not taking away resources, and I say that from my heart because I'm really lucky I survived."