Gambling can literally break your heart

Do you feel lucky this week? Totally convinced it’s your turn to hit the jackpot? Or has someone offered you a free junket to Las Vegas for the weekend? Well, before you decide on Atlantic City, Las Vegas or other casinos in the U.S., it might be wise to consider gambling in Canada. Why? Read on.

Lester Liddiz, a 66-year-old retired auto mechanic, felt fine when he arrived at the gambling casino in Windsor, Ont. But while playing the slot machine he collapsed from a heart attack. If he’d been in Las Vegas he might have cashed in his chips early. But in Windsor an on-site casino nurse revived him with an automatic defibrillator.

Lori Rugle, deputy director of The Veterans’ Addiction Recovery Center in Cleveland, explains that Canada retains ownership of all casinos in the country and is very progressive in providing medical care. Cardiac arrests are very common in U.S. casinos, but defibrillators are not.

No one, to my knowledge, has studied how much stress is associated with winning or losing money. But if you’ve mortgaged the house to gamble, the adrenaline must surely be working overtime. And if a coronary strikes, it’s all too often deadly.

A report in the Medal Post claims that patrons of Las Vegas casinos had 736 cardiac arrests between 1993 and 1996. Only 159 people survived. That’s just half the number that normally survive a myocardial infarction.

Dr. David Paterson is a Windsor physician who developed Casino Windsor’s defibrillator program. He says it took him only one look at the patrons to know defibrillators were a necessity. Every day bus loads of seniors arrive at Casino Windsor, many of them suffering from multiple problems such as angina, asthma, emphysema, diabetes and other age-related troubles. And stress and disaster are waiting to happen.

Studies of compulsive gamblers show that they deal with tremendous levels of stress. And they tend to be high-intensity people to begin with." But they’re also predisposed to not spending money on medication, or forget to take it.

Richard Hardman, a Las Vegas emergency training co-ordinator, refers to the "Las Vegas syndrome". He says when adults arrive in the city they act like kids going to Disneyland. He claims they leave behind all sense of reality. They do things they would never do at home. They stay up all night. They ignore their usual medication. And they eat like they’ve never eaten before. It’s a bad combination. And like the odds at the casino, a coronary attack will strike eventually.

So why are U.S. casinos without cardiac defibrillators? Lori Rugle says they’re concerned about medical liability insurance. But she believes that, nevertheless, defibrillators should be available at all three casinos planned for Detroit.

The American Heart Association recently recommended that defibrillators be placed in public locations where large numbers of people gather, such as shopping malls, health clubs and office buildings. They should also be available to non-medical people, such as security guards.

There’s little doubt that defibrillators in casinos would save more lives — much depends on where they’re located and the size of the casino. For instance, the MGM Grand in Las Vegas is huge — so big it’s estimated it would take six to eight minutes to reach a victim. By that time the patient is either dead or brain-dead.

But we need more than cardiac defibrillators in casinos. Some patrons seem to be brain-dead before they even enter the casino. It’s appalling that some actually abandon small children in cars while they gamble, or allow five-year olds to look after a newborn baby while they play the machines until 2 a.m.

Today, between one per cent and three per cent of North Americans are compulsive gamblers. Like Jimmy the Greek, they believe that "the next best thing to gambling and winning is gambling and losing." Compulsive gamblers, like other addicts, have to sink to the depths of hell before they acknowledge their illness. By then they’ve lost their homes, family or are in jail because of stealing.

Mark Twain wrote, "There are two times in a man’s life when he should not gamble; when he can afford it and when he can’t." If you disagree, at least gamble in Canada. If chest pain strikes, you have a better chance of enjoying your good fortune.

Dr. Ken Walker practises medicine in Toronto and also writes under the pen name of Dr. Gifford-Jones.