Oklahoma's sun is an even greater risk to homeless veteran Gary Matthews and others with certain medical conditions or who take specific medications.
The former Army helicopter pilot thought he could just work off his ankle injury after he stumbled in a cobblestone street in Germany. Instead, he found himself on the verge of death when a blood clot formed in a deep vein, then broke off and traveled to his lung.
While he survived the pulmonary embolism, it forced him out of the Army and is now forcing him to stay sheltered, with his family, from Oklahoma's blazing heat.
“We had a house in Germany and the summer temperatures were in the 70s and 80s. Coming here was a big shock,” Matthews said.
The family moved here from Wisconsin to be near his parents. In May, his pastor helped Matthews, his wife, Raffaela, their 2-year-old daughter, Larissa, and 4-month-old daughter, Chiara, find an opening at the Salvation Army shelter, where they've lived the last couple of months.
He must stay inside, under the shelter's air conditioning because his medical condition puts him at greater risk in steamy weather.
Illness, drugs and heat
In hot weather, patients like Matthews are more prone to pooling of the blood in the veins, according to Dr. Scott Dellinger, OU Medical Center emergency room physician.
“Your vessels are maximally dilated, trying to release as much heat as they can. So it does cause more venous pooling,” Dellinger said.
“Once you've had a clot, the veins are scarred. They're going to hurt. When they swell, they're going to hurt more. Anybody who's ever had a clot is going to be at risk of forming another clot.”
Doctors say certain patients — especially those with chronic illnesses and people using some rather common medications — must avoid Oklahoma's triple-digit temperatures.
“Specifically, anyone with heart conditions. The heat places special stress on the heart. So they need to try to stay cool, take it pretty easy,” said Dr. Bobby Rader, a St. Anthony family practice physician.
People with congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease are among those who need to be cautious, he said.
Oklahomans with chronic illnesses such as diabetes already have compromised immune systems; if they get dehydrated, their medical problems can multiply.
Cancer patients, particularly those undergoing chemotherapy must be careful to stay cool, Rader said.
“Some things can surprise people and get them into trouble,” Rader said.
He said people using medications to treat high blood pressure and even common medications can suffer an increased sensitivity to the sun and greater risk of dehydration.
A common blood pressure medication and common diuretic is hydrochlorothiazide. Rader said it can present problems when a patient gets in hot weather, either as a lone medication or as a combination medicine. These often show up on the label as “HCTZ.”
“There are certain antibiotics ... that can increase people's sensitivity to the sun and cause them to get into trouble with heat exhaustion in situations when they wouldn't otherwise have problems,” Rader said.
Those include the antibiotic category called fluoroquinolone — Cipro and Levaquin are examples. Tetracycline is another common antibiotic that can lead to problems when the patient is exposed to the heat.
Between Matthews' medical condition and the effects of the medication used to control it, he hasn't been able to work. He has enrolled in Oklahoma City Community College and is working toward becoming a broadcast journalist.
Meanwhile, Matthews spends most days in the shelter day room, staying cool until evening, when the family sometimes walks to a water park. He said they are all anxious to move away from the Salvation Army shelter and find shelter from the sun in their own home.
“I'm not comfortable with my kids growing up here. For me, it's not the way I pictured it going, with having a family and everything,” Matthews said.