Heart health, hunting and knowing what you can handle

"With age comes additional risk factors that people don’t think about since, for the most part, they’ve been hunting since they were kids.”

By: Melissa Shutter .

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Blood is usually a good sign -– for a hunter, anyway.

But when the critter it’s coming from — the one you just sent a crossbow bolt through — hightails it across miles of open prairie and eventually fades from view, then it most definitely is not. I speak from experience. It happened to me last month while on an archery antelope hunt in western Nebraska.

After connecting on a 65-yard shot, the animal took off across one field after another, eventually dipping out of sight –- leaving me sweat-soaked, winded and mumbling cuss words.

Hunting can be a messy business. And as I watched his white rump disappear over that last rise, I knew the real work hadn’t even begun.

Hidden dangers

While I was prepared for the physical demands that lay ahead, I was not prepared for the less-than-perfect location my bolt had found on the antelope’s body, nor the added stress the resulting chase had on me both physically and mentally.

Dr. Thomas Haldis, a Sanford Health cardiologist, said most hunters venture afield unprepared for both.

“In general, hunters are worried about exactly what you’d expect: gun safety, difficult terrain, encounters with wild animals. But they seldom think they can’t handle a hunt,” he said. “Plus, with age comes additional risk factors that people don’t think about since, for the most part, they’ve been hunting since they were kids.”

Those risk factors include everything from high blood pressure and lung disease to diabetes, coronary artery disease and other heart issues. And, according to Dr. Haldis, most hunters at risk of a cardiac event don’t prepare their bodies appropriately before heading into the woods or out to belly crawl across the plains.

An ounce of prevention …

What are the best ways to keep health issues from screwing up this season’s hunting plans?

“First and foremost, a little preventative care, including frequent checkups with your heath care provider and staying active in the off-season, can go a long way,” Dr. Haldis said. “An inexperienced climber wouldn’t choose to take on Mount Everest without training first. Same goes for hunters. Don’t let hunting be the only physical activity you get during the year. Make sure your lifestyle is commensurate with what you’ll be doing in the field.”

An important item to note, since — as you’ll remember — hunts seldom go exactly according to plan.

“What if you wind up in a pickle? What if your ATV breaks down, you must chase a wounded animal or drag a deer out yourself? Hunters should be prepared for the unexpected,” Dr. Haldis said.

This means starting an exercise program six to eight weeks prior to opening day of your favorite season, potentially undergoing stress tests at the doctor’s office and being aware of physical warning signs.

“First and foremost, know what your body can handle. If you’re tired, short of breath or in pain, stop and rest. Don’t push through that stuff. Dizziness, exhaustion, chest pain, leg pain and rapid pulse are other signs to be wary of, since any could result in a cardiac event,” Dr. Haldis said.

Just one more reason to be prepared, take it easy and pay attention to your body.

“One way to induce heart attack or sudden cardiac death is to overstress the heart, period. Blocked vessels can overwhelm the heart and make it work harder. Don’t set yourself up for an injury, or worse,” Dr. Haldis said.

Backup plan

Dr. Haldis also recommends that those who are out of shape or at higher risk for heart-related issues never hunt alone. Hunters should always take their cellphones and let friends and family know their whereabouts and expected return time prior to hitting the stand. If you plan to hunt with a partner, take a pair of walkie-talkies along, just to be safe.

“Sitting in a stand is no big deal, but being able to call for help if and when you need it, that’s important,” Dr. Haldis said.

Take it from someone who’s been there. When you find yourself in a sticky situation and reality sets in, you’ll want to have someone on call who’s willing, able and prepared to help you out.

If it weren’t for my ability to call for help during last month’s archery antelope escapade, there’s a good chance the kill wouldn’t have been recovered. There’s an even greater chance I would have exhausted myself trying to locate the animal, which could have been anywhere within a handful of square miles, not to mention breaking it down, packing it out and disposing of the carcass.

Unlike bird hunting, getting within shooting range of big-game animals like antelope, deer, elk or bighorn sheep can be brutally taxing. Not only is the quarry on high alert, but these species go out of their way to avoid run-ins with people, including making their homes on steep mountainsides, sheer cliff faces and sage-covered plains — in other words, some of the most unforgiving terrain on the planet.

Just getting yourself and your gear in can be a struggle, never mind getting yourself, your gear and a 100-plus pound animal out safely. There’s so much that could go wrong.

Whether you’re dragging the animal out, loading it into a truck bed or onto a utility vehicle or breaking it down and packing quarters out on your back, meat and bone don’t make for an easy haul by any means.

Hunting is so worth it

While it’s important to be prepared for the worst, there’s also no reason to look at hunting as a scary or dangerous activity. In fact, it provides people with ample health benefits, Dr. Haldis said.

“Hunting gets people outdoors, keeps them active and breeds passionate outdoorsmen and conservationists –- those are huge benefits. It’s truly something people live for,” he said.

“Cardiac patients: bring along all medications prescribed by your doctor. Non-cardiac patients: make sure you have some way to communicate should you run into trouble. It’s pretty simple.”

For me, hunting is a lifestyle. It provides challenge, perspective and compassion that extends into every other area of my life. It keeps me physically active, in tune with my body and emotionally aware. It also enables me to provide for myself and my loved ones.

Physically, mentally and emotionally, hunting delivers a quality of life that is simply unrivaled.

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