Storms driving through the Chicago area this morning are giving a brief respite from the heat, which may have claimed up to six lives so far in Chicago and the South suburbs.
The Cook County medical examiner's office says autopsies done today will show whether the six died from heat-related causes. Five of the deaths are in Chicago and one is in Calumet City.
No deaths have been reported in the north and northwest suburbs, but some local hospitals are seeing a sizable influx of patients complaining of heat-related health problems.
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At Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital near Lake Barrington, emergency room visits are up 20 percent, and several patients over the last few days have come in with life-threatening heat stroke. Most were outdoor workers such as truck drivers and tradesman, spokesman Mike Deering said.
"These people had a serious condition and most were unconscious by the time they got to us," Deering said Thursday. "They're hustling to work hard, but everyone needs to remember to be careful, slow down and drink plenty of fluids."
Even more patients have wound up in the ER with heat exhaustion, which can present itself as a serious headache, vomiting, nausea, muscle cramping and dizziness, Deering said.
Northwest of Barrington, Centegra Hospital's immediate care centers in Huntley and Crystal Lake report a variety of maladies. There was the asthmatic boy who went outside in the scorching heat and humidity, began wheezing and suddenly couldn't breathe, said Dr. Marietta Abraham, medical director for both centers.
There was the mother in her mid-30s who drove her daughter to volleyball camp three hours away, but forgot to hydrate and to bring snacks for herself. The trip left her wiped out and confused. And then there were the children who sustained second-degree burns on their shoulders from playing too long in the blazing sun.
Officials at the newly opened Vista emergency center in Lindenhurst and Vista East in Waukegan have also treated patients with heat-related symptoms, said Dr. Kenji Oyasu, medical director for both facilities.
Some patients knew they were ill but did not know why, Oyasu said.
"Symptoms of dehydration are very nonspecific, and we have had people coming in saying 'I'm nauseous, I'm feeling lightheaded, or I'm just not feeling well and I can't explain it,'" Oyasu said. "We run the tests and are finding out that in most of the cases they just haven't been managing their water intake and are becoming dehydrated."
Oyasu said it is important for the very young and the elderly to be on guard for heat-related maladies, as many of the people he has seen this week fall into those categories.
Alexian Health Systems' two suburban hospitals in Elk Grove Village and Hoffman Estates also reported a noticeable increase in the number of ER visits over the past two days.
A majority of the visits were for complaints of dehydration, heat exhaustion, and overheating. However, there weren't any cases that reached the point of heat stroke, spokesman Matt Wakely said.
"Primarily, the elderly account for a good portion of that increase," Wakely said. "It's important for especially the elderly to stay hydrated."
The situation has been less severe at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, where the number of heat-related visits to the ER is up, but overall patient volume is down.
"The thought here is that people are avoiding the heat and the kinds of activities that would get them injured," spokesman Blaine Krage said. Still, in preparation for the scorching week, the hospital stocked up on ice and other supplies used for heat-related maladies.
Dr. Jack Franaszek, the emergency department's medical director at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, believes media reports about the current heat wave and past experiences have affected how people behave in extreme heat. People know to stay hydrated, to check on elderly neighbors or friends and to take other important precautions, he said.
As a result, Franaszek doubts the Chicago area will ever again suffer mass casualties like it did during the notorious 1995 heat wave.
In DuPage County, the numbers are less severe. At Central DuPage Hospital, just five people came in with heat-related illnesses Thursday, fewer than the hospital expected, said spokeswoman Amy Jo Steinbruecker.
At Adventist GlenOaks Hospital in Glendale Heights, two patients were being treated on Thursday for heat exhaustion. The emergency room at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove has treated a handful of cases of heat-related fainting since Monday.
In Elgin, Sherman Hospital doctors have examined between five and seven people daily, mostly for minor heat exhaustion, not heat stroke, said Dr. Matthew Stilson, Sherman's medical director for the emergency room and its immediate care centers. Things are also pretty quiet at St. Joe's.
"We haven't had anybody that's come in with any severe, heat-like symptoms," said Dr. Jihun Lee, the hospital's EMS medical director.
Stilson credits the news media for keeping extreme weather preparations in the public eye.
"Everybody has been talking about the heat, talking about wearing loose clothes and drinking fluids and checking on elderly neighbors and the disabled," Stilson said. "It's much more so than what I was hearing around Memorial Day."
Emergency rooms are likely to be busier when you get the unexpected hot day that catches people by surprise -- like Memorial Day this year -- than during a heat wave, Stilson added.