Angler’s death prompts concern

Experts weigh in on what parkgoers can do to limit health risks

Two days after a man’s body was recovered after suffering a heart attack at a Cambria County state park, medical professionals spoke out about the dangers of heat- and exercise-related health risks.

Their advice was clear: stay in the company of others and know the symptoms and risks of a heart attack.

“These are really difficult situations,” said Dr. David Burwell, a family physician and vice president of clinical quality with UPMC Altoona.

On Saturday, the body of Larry Gontero, a 67-year-old Luthersburg angler, was found floating in the water of Prince Gallitzin State Park’s Glendale Lake.

He had been missing for more than two weeks after his boat was found unattended.

Officials on Sunday confirmed that he’d fallen from that boat into the water while suffering a heart attack.

In May 2017, a similar “cardiac event” played a role in the death of William Slone, 72, who was found dead floating in the water at the park.

More than a million people visit Prince Gallitzin each year, and heart-related emergencies are a somewhat regular occurrence, said Jessica Lavelua, the park’s manager.

“With so many people in the summer — and all year — visiting the park, they happen,” she said.

Park rangers and select staff members are trained in CPR and medical equipment is stored on site, Lavelua said.

But it is the nature of state parks and other woodland recreation sites to offer opportunities for visitors to be alone in remote forests or waterways

The combination of solitude and remote wilderness can be an obstacle when it comes to health issues and emergency response, Lavelua said.

“If we are notified about them, we try to respond as quickly as we can,” she said. “The quicker the response, the better the chances.”

In those cases of solitude, however, it may be hard for someone suffering a medical emergency to seek out help.

That is why Lavelua suggests that parkgoers — especially the elderly or those with pre-existing conditions — should try to recreate in groups of at least two people.

“If at all possible, it would be safer to do some activities with a buddy,” she said, listing hiking and boating among them.

The “buddy” system isn’t always an option, and in those cases, Lavelua suggested that parkgoers should at least make others aware of what areas they’ll be visiting. And, when on the water, they should always wear life jackets, she said.

Lavelua’s warnings were backed by the American Heart Association, which warned that people older than 50 and those considered overweight should take steps to stay safe when outside, especially on hot days.

Heat is an aggravating factor when it comes to heart attacks, said Dr. Archana Sodagam, a cardiologist with Conemaugh Health System.

Part of that aggravation comes from sweat, which causes people to expel water and electrolytes from their bodies. The loss of those substances can lead to low blood pressure, and low blood pressure can lead to heart attacks, Sodagam said.

That is especially true for those with risk factors, such as sedentary lifestyles, smoking habits and excess body weight.

“Make sure if you have risk factors, you find out from a physician if you need any screenings,” she said.

Another risk factor is age, Burwell said.

“Age definitely factors in at both ends of the spectrum,” he said, explaining both young and old people are susceptible to heat-related illness.

He also listed ways to avoid those illnesses, namely wearing minimal, breathable clothing, staying hydrated and seeking shade or air conditioning whenever possible.

Avoiding excess clothing also is key, he said, explaining bulky fishing vests may trap heat.

“That could be considered excessive,” Burwell said.

Like Lavelua, both Burwell and Sodagam stressed the importance of companionship when visiting locations like state parks on hot summer days.

But in cases when companionship is not an option, a person experiencing heart attack symptoms should seek help as quickly as possible, Burwell said.

Symptoms include a heavy, crushing feeling or pain in the chest, which could radiate outward to the left arm or jaw, as well as shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting and excessive sweating.

In cases when a boat is involved, a person experiencing symptoms should immediately head toward shore Sodagam said.

“Don’t be in the middle of the lake,” she said, adding that the trip toward shore should begin at onset of even the most minor symptoms. “They shouldn’t brush it off.”

Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.