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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Heat appears to have led to 7 deaths in Spokane, medical examiner says; experts explain dangers of hot weather

A man named Joseph feels the heat outside the Donna Hanson Haven on Saturday in downtown Spokane.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Amid a run of record-setting temperatures, seven deaths in Spokane appear to have been related to the heat, according to the Spokane County medical examiner.

The office also identified two residents who died at the Washington Apartments on Wednesday after suffering what officials suspect were heat-related illnesses.

Fire and police crews responding to a call Wednesday found 68-year-old Robert L. Hunt deceased in his apartment. Across the hall, they found Andre Pharr, 36, who had also died before fire crews arrived.

Witnesses told fire crews they heard the victims had been suffering from symptoms linked to heat stress, according to Brian Coddington, spokesman for the city of Spokane.

The medical examiner’s office had not confirmed the causes of death as of 4 p.m. Thursday.

A woman in her 60s also was found dead in her private residence Wednesday in north Spokane, along with her pet dog, Coddington said.

Determining someone had a heat-related condition can be a challenge for physicians, said Lonika Sood, clinical education director for internal medicine at Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. Many symptoms associated with heat illness can also be explained by underlying medical conditions or other ailments, which means physicians have to work with the patient about the circumstances surrounding their illness, she said.

“For heat-related illnesses, the hard part in making that a definitive diagnosis is that there’s no blood test or exam to tell us definitively that this is a heat-related illnesses,” Sood said. “A lot of it is looking at the patient history and physical exam.”

When a patient comes in with signs of heat stress, Sood said, physicians will do what they can to rule out other causes. They ask about the patient’s day to determine whether they were in a hot environment, Sood said.

Doctors also will perform blood tests and other diagnostic testing to determine whether the patient experienced organ damage, which can happen quickly if someone is dealing with heat stress, Sood said. If patients respond to the next step, which is to cool them through fluids, Sood said they usually can determine the patient had a heat-related illness.

The most severe and life-threatening form of heat illness is heat stroke, Sood said. As the body becomes more dehydrated, the lack of blood supply will cause organ failure and even brain damage if left untreated, she said.

“Your heart senses it’s not able to get enough blood, so it pumps harder to make sure the body is getting that supply,” Sood said.

Triple-digit temperatures hit Spokane starting Sunday and on Tuesday broke the city’s all-time record for the hottest day at 109 degrees.

The high temperature on Wednesday was 104, a record high for that date.

For a region used to 70 to 80-degree days this time in the year, a sudden spike can pose higher health risks, said Valerie Thaler, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service Spokane.

“We’re experiencing temps that are 20, 30 degrees above normal, and our bodies just aren’t used to that,” Thaler said.

Temperatures were lower Thursday with a high of 94 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

Temperatures have remained warm overnight during the heatwave. The low in Spokane dropped to just 78 degrees two nights this week – the highest low temperatures ever recorded here, the weather service said.

“There’s really no relief overnight,” Thaler said.

Overnight, much-needed rain fell in parts of Spokane, including downtown and in the northwest part of town, said Steven Van Horn, a weather service meteorologist. Radar estimated about a quarter of an inch fell.

The weather service earlier issued a red flag warning because of lightning, but it expired because no more lightning was expected Thursday, Van Horn said.

S-R staffer Shafiq Moltafet contributed to this report.