AP Photographer Has Health Scare Covering Extreme Heat in Arizona

Arizona Heat
The Arizonian heat. | Matt Howard

An Associated Press (AP) photographer covering the extreme heat in Phoenix, Arizona had a health scare after his blood pressure shot through the roof with nurses concerned he was going to have a heart attack.

Matt York has spent over 20 years covering Phoenix for the AP which has involved plenty of weather coverage but in an article published on the AP website, York says this record-breaking summer has been like no other.

“On the morning of July 10, I spent more than three hours off and on photographing life outdoors. Heat features are tough in part because people aren’t stupid enough to be outside, unlike photojournalists,” York writes.

“When I got home, I was exhausted. But I got up the next day and went back out for another consecutive day of temperatures above 110 Fahrenheit (43.3 Celsius).”

York says that he was experiencing equipment issues, with the wild temperatures overheating his cameras and phone.

It began to take a toll on his body too, he would regularly sweat excessively but then on July 12 he realized he had stopped sweating.

“My body had no more water to give. My legs started feeling chilled, an odd sensation. Then they cramped. It was obvious I needed to get out of the heat,” he writes.

“But I didn’t think any more of it. That night I slept fitfully as temperatures remained high, and I had a headache. By Friday, July 14, I was super lethargic and just wanted the work week to end. I was done with covering heat.”

After a regular check-up at the doctors on Tuesday — the same day Phoenix broke its record for the longest streak above 110 Fahrenheit (43.3 Celsius) — the doctors noticed that York was not in good health and measured his blood pressure at 200/120.

“The nurse wanted to send me in an ambulance to the emergency room because they thought I was going to have a heart attack,” he says.

“It’s so surprising it seems funny now. I assumed I was just tired from work. I opted to see my doctor on Wednesday and was told I was suffering from heat exhaustion.”

Things were so bad the doctor couldn’t draw blood from either of York’s arms because he was dehydrated.

A Heat Warning to Photographers

After resting for two days indoors, York is now fine (his blood pressure is down to 128/72) but says he will be more cautious from now on.

“In extreme heat, we will limit ourselves to 30– to 40-minute windows of shooting before breaking to cool down,” he says.

“We’re keeping chilled, damp towels in a cooler in our cars and about two to three times as much water and Gatorade as we would have normally.

“A separate cooler with plastic ice packs holds our cameras when we’re not shooting. We have extra dry towels for sweat. We also plan to send all our images from inside a cooled building, not from our cars as we usually do.”

York’s story is a cautionary tale for press photographers or any photographer who is working outside in the parts of the United States that are currently affected by extreme heat.

York says he typically fights through assignments when he’s not feeling well. But when it comes to heat, the risk is too great.