Phillips estimates that there are 2,000 extra deaths each year, mostly from heart-related problems, linked with Christmas and New Year's. He says hospitals' holiday staffing is a factor, with fewer doctors and nurses working and the most senior employees often on vacation.
Also, he said, in the rush leading up to the holidays, people tend to ignore symptoms and put off going to the doctor — which can be dangerous if heart problems or other serious illnesses are brewing.
His advice? Head to the emergency room with life-threatening symptoms such as chest pain, unexplained falls, numbness or tingling. But for non-emergencies and elective surgeries, you might want to consider holding off until hospital staffing is back to normal.
Nashville dentist Jason Cabler fell victim last year. After opening presents on Christmas morning with his wife and two teens, Cabler headed downstairs to lift weights in his basement gym when he started to feel a little odd, including tightness in his chest.
"I said, 'I'm just having an off day, I'll just work through it,'" he recalled. But when his symptoms got worse, he climbed upstairs and asked his son to drive him to the hospital. By then he was feeling nauseous and sweating profusely. Ten minutes later he was in a hospital emergency room. Doctors diagnosed a heart attack and implanted two stents to open blocked artery.
Cabler was just 45, had always been healthy and active, so the diagnosis was a surprise. So was learning about the possible seasonal connection. Now he says the stress of running around buying gifts and braving holiday crowds might have been a factor. Doctors also found he had high cholesterol and triglycerides, prescribed medicine and recommended cutting down on fat and sugar.
Cabler said he's trying to cut the stress this holiday season — buying fewer gifts and spending more time at home.