BC woman world's first to receive "climate change" diagnosis for illness

Nov 26 2021, 7:13 pm

From wildfires to heat domes and catastrophic flooding, BC has gotten a first-hand look at the ravaging impacts of climate change this year.

In addition to displacing people from their homes and cutting off supply chains, these catastrophic climate events make people sicker, and a BC doctor is calling attention to it.

One of Dr. Kyle Merritt’s patients, a BC woman from the Interior, is believed to be the world’s first person to receive an official diagnosis that climate change is the cause of her ailments.

Merritt, a family physician in Nelson, BC, saw the woman in her late 70s this summer while she was experiencing heatstroke, dehydration, and breathing issues. He made a note in her chart that climate change was contributing to her illness, and the simple act has resonated around the world.

“Changes to climate and planetary health are becoming medical issues more and more,” Merritt told Daily Hive. “As physicians, we see things happening that are causing our patients to come in, and it’s our professional responsibility to advocate for our patients.”

He saw the woman when BC was experiencing unprecedented heat waves and intense wildfires. Merritt knew that if he sent the woman back to her home, with no air conditioning or air filtration, her condition would only get worse.

So he admitted her to a local hospital.

“I realized that it didn’t seem safe to discharge her home back to a place where the indoor temps are above 30°C,” he said. “When you do documentation around admission, you need to record the reason why — and it was related to the heat dome.”

The BC Coroners Service released a report this month suggesting that nearly 600 British Columbians died as a result of a record-breaking heat dome in late June. The majority perished during the head wave itself, but a number of deaths were also reported in the weeks following due to “injuries sustained during the heat-dome period.”

More recently, BC has recorded at least four deaths due to mudslides during a record-breaking atmospheric river.

Merritt grew up in the Kootenays and moved away for several years during his medical education before returning eight years ago as a practicing doctor. He said summers now are markedly different than he remembers growing up.

“The smoke we’re experiencing now I never experienced as a child,” he said. “Kids are growing up now with summers that have weeks and weeks really choked with wildfire smoke.”

When West Coast Doctors for Planetary Health shared a news release earlier this month highlighting Merritt’s diagnosis, he had no idea the story would make headlines around the world — from the UK to India.

He said it’s encouraging to see that climate change is gaining more mainstream attention as a worrisome crisis.

Governments should track climate change diagnoses, doctor says

Going forward, Merritt hopes that British Columbia and other jurisdictions create diagnosis codes so that doctors can record climate-change-related illnesses easily, and health authorities can track the number of them.

Nearly all illnesses have codes that doctors include in a patient’s chart, and they help countries track data on the prevalence of certain diseases.

“[We ned to be] recognizing that this is a huge issue for health, and helping people, in general, make the links here.”

Megan DevlinMegan Devlin

+ News