Early one Christmas morning long ago, during my shift as the emergency doctor in a hospital, a man in a Santa suit was wheeled in by the paramedics, seemingly unresponsive and soaking wet.
He had been found at the beach, at the edge of the shore break, the night tide having risen around him.
In working out what sort of shape he was in, I tried the usual question, ‘How are you feeling?’ He surprised me with an answer. “Terrible. I had a few after my gig last night and don’t remember anything after that.”
At least Santa gave the staff some Ho- Ho -Ho that Christmas morning.
Holiday heart syndrome
At the time it was all very funny, but more recently medical science has named a condition, ‘Holiday Heart syndrome’. It is related to binge drinking and can cause an upset to the electrical circuitry of the heart.
It causes an irregular rhythm called atrial fibrillation. The person may experience palpitations, or may not even be aware of this disturbance. It can be dangerous and can induce heart attack or stroke by blood clot formation in the fluttery heart.
Everybody knows that booze is bad for the liver and affects the brain. We know of its long association with domestic violence, but less well understood, or accepted, is that alcohol, taken to excess, can be a deadly poison.
In the week between Christmas and New Year, the incidence of heart attack is higher than at any other time. There are other reasons for this, not all to do with alcohol.
Stress, for whatever reason causes an increased adrenalin output in the body and, if chronic, causes damaging inflammation.
Travelling can be stressful, with airport delays, congested roads, crappy hotel rooms, lost luggage, rip-offs and theft – you know it. The list of possible stressors can be long.
An old joke among doctors defines an alcoholic as someone who drinks more than the doctor. Looking back, it’s little surprise that some of my cases were probably more linked to this problem than I realised at the time.
Like a Raft
Increasing age can bring an awareness that alcohol is not so easy to handle as once was possible. Our society is a raft floating on a sea of alcohol to the point where we hardly notice it.
An old friend with aches and pains told me he was diagnosed with metabolic syndrome and his doctor was doing more tests. When I enquired how much he was drinking, he told me, ‘Oh, same as ever. Never more than five bottles a week’.
If you asked a fish, ’How is the water?’ he might be puzzled and ask ‘What is water?’
I suggested to my mate that a regular day a week off it might be a move to awareness. But can an old dog learn a new trick? His life may depend on it.
Is a retired GP in Brunswick Heads.