Deaths in snowstorm

By Alex P. Vidal

“The first fall of snow is not only an event, it is a magical event. You go to bed in one kind of a world and wake up in another quite different, and if this is not enchantment then where is it to be found?” —J. B. Priestley

THE first warning I received when I started shoveling snow 14 years ago was, “don’t do it if you have a weak heart.”

Thus, I wasn’t surprised when authorities pointed to cardiac arrest to be the cause of the first two deaths reported related to the snowstorm that recently lashed Buffalo and other Western parts of New York.

Heart attacks have been known to occur while shoveling heavy amounts of snow.

But, I learned later that even if we have no history of heart problem, anyone—male or female—can die of heart attack and chest pain by trying to remove heavy snow, a vigorous physical activity.

Especially if we do it randomly and don’t throw caution to the wind.

Shoveling the white stuff can not only hurt our back, but it can also be hard on our heart.

This has been proven several times when I shoveled snow in Canada, here in the United States, and in other countries with large snow during winter season.

The storm in Buffalo was predicted days in advance with a precision that was stunning in both its timing and placement. It’s been in the news several days earlier.

It still left several towns stunned by its ferocity and overwhelmed by its relentlessness.

And as with other lake-effect storms, others farther north wondered what all the fuss was about and whether their time would come.

Despite days of warnings, snow-removal efforts were hampered by motorists who disregarded driving bans and travel advisories.


According to 2019 research, exercising very hard (like we do when shoveling snow) can increase our heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen requirements of our body.

Health officials say blood vessels are tighter in the cold weather, making it harder for blood to pass through them. Combine that with the stress of physical activity, and it can mean disaster for some unsuspecting shovelers, warned The Weather Network.

According to MetroHealth, patients who have a known heart disease condition, have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and/or are smokers are at highest risk of a heart attack while shoveling snow.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation recommends that anyone who has ever had a heart attack, stroke, or heart surgery should have someone else do the shoveling or should speak to their doctor before taking on such a task.

While shoveling the snow, health officials want us to watch for the following warning signs: lightheadedness, dizziness, being short of breath, tightness or burning in chest, neck, arms or back.

If we experience any of these warnings signs while shoveling, we are advised to sit down and rest. If the feeling continues for more than a few minutes we may call 911.

We have been told to talk to our doctor before tackling the snow and that we should avoid shoveling immediately after waking up in the morning as most heart attacks occur early in the morning when blood is more prone to clotting.


Before doing it, we must wait for at least 30 minutes and warm up our muscles before starting by walking for a few minutes or marching in place.

We aren’t supposed to eat heavy meal before shoveling as our blood gets diverted form the heart to the stomach.

Also, we can’t drink coffee or smoke for at least one hour before or one hour after shoveling or during breaks.

These are stimulants and elevate your blood pressure and heart rate.

According to The Heart and Stroke Foundation, we must use a small shovel: shovel many small loads instead of heavy ones and begin slowly and take frequent, 15 minute breaks.

Before doing it, we must drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration and dress in layers, to avoid hypothermia (low body temperature) or overheating.

It’s important that we also cover our head and neck (50 percent body heat lost through head and neck) and cover our mouth (breathing cold air can cause angina or trigger breathing problems.

The Buffalo News has reported that Orchard Park, Elma and Blasdell were the hardest hit of the Southtowns, with all three reaching 4 feet of accumulation by 5 p.m. November 18.

The lake-effect storm’s path was expected to move northward overnight, with Buffalo and Kenmore taking a hit, and to a lesser extent in the Northtowns and Niagara County. While accumulations were expected to fall well short of the 4½ feet just south, WIVB meteorologist and Buffalo News contributor Don Paul said winds would pick up to 15-30 mph over the weekend, limiting visibility.

Between November 18 (Friday) afternoon to when the storm ends November 21 (Monday), southern Erie County could get one foot to 2½ feet more, added the paper.

The Buffalo area was expected get an additional one to two feet, while Niagara County could receive eight inches to 12 inches more, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Liz Jurkowski.

(The author, who is now based in New York City, used to be the editor of two local dailies in Iloilo.—Ed)