Dr. Thomas K. Lew
Parking at the Northern California hospital where I work, I quickly break into a sweat during the 80-foot walk to the entrance. It’s 100 degrees outside, and it’s only 8 a.m. Outdoors, I can feel the intense sunlight on my skin, but inside the cool wards of the hospital, I experience the effects of the recent heat wave in my soul: My first patient of the day is gravely sick from severe heat stroke.
A healthy athlete, he became severely lightheaded, disoriented and unable to put together a coherent sentence. He had only spent 15 minutes in a car driving without air conditioning, but these effects were lasting hours. At one point, we thought he was developing a true stroke in his brain and not just heat stroke.
He’s not the only one suffering. I am seeing more and more people experiencing adverse health consequences of a warming environment. Put more bluntly, more people are getting sick from climate change. I am seeing them today. Not years in the future. Right now. For our health and survival, we need to be brave enough to stop and even reverse climate change by supporting state and national policies that strive to do this.
Heat stroke, dehydration and wildfires
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Extreme temperatures and extreme weather events like hurricanes and tropical storms are becoming more frequent. Therecent heat wave on the West Coast is another symptom of climate change, with the thermometer reaching triple digits for days at a time. New records were set, including the 130 degree mark in Death Valley – the second highest temperature on Earth ever recorded.
People have found fun in the extreme temperatures, cooking breakfast or baking cookies using just the sunlight. But the heat can be deadly for our most vulnerable. At least 150 deaths have been attributed to the heat in the Pacific Northwest during this recent unprecedented heat wave. If British Columbia, Canada, is counted, then that numbernears 1,000 people. In my hospital, we are seeing more heat strokes and dehydration cases, especially among our elderly and homeless population.
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This is all happening as wildfire season is starting. Last year in California, the skies turned an ominous shade of red as much of the West Coast burned. Despite efforts in forest management, uncontrolled wildfires are raging once again. The environment is so dry, in fact, that one wildfire was set off by a golf club sparking when it struck the ground.
The health consequences are palpable. Last year, our medical wards filled with the sounds of wheezing lungs from struggling patients, both from COVID-19 and also pulmonary damage from wildfire smoke. Climate change continues to make these fires all the more frequent.
No time left for political bickering
We cannot turn this battle into more political bickering; we don’t have the time. We need to push our elected officials to support policies curbing carbon emissions and promoting clean energy. We need to invest in the science. We need to believe the science.
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Aside fromrising sea levels,destruction of animal habitats,melting polar caps,increased flooding and the other myriad existential hazards, we are still at grave direct health risks with worsening climate change. And those dangers are now. Nowhere is this more evident than inside a hospital, filled with patients suffering from the increasing heat and smoke. More than just causing an unpleasantly hot walk across a parking lot, climate change will certainly lead to more death and suffering unless we pull together across the political spectrum and act before it’s too late.
Thomas K. Lew, MD, is an assistant clinical professor of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine and an attending physician of Hospital Medicine at Stanford Health Care – ValleyCare. All opinions are solely his own. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasLewMD