Prancer didn't bring Glen Washburn a lump of coal on Christmas 2001. But the horse did bring on a heart attack that sent the Keokuk, Iowa, man to the hospital on Dec. 26, 2001 2001. The...

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IOWA CITY, Iowa — Prancer didn’t bring Glen Washburn a lump of coal on Christmas 2001.

But the horse did bring on a heart attack that sent the Keokuk, Iowa, man to the hospital on Dec. 26, 2001.

The retired railroad and school worker, now 71, was taken by helicopter to University Hospitals in Iowa City, where he later had triple-bypass surgery.

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“I never thought about having a heart attack,” Washburn said.

A new study shows that 12.4 percent more people die from heart attacks and other natural causes on Christmas Day than on any other day.

Spikes in death rates on Christmas and New Year’s Day most likely result from people being reluctant to seek care on a holiday because they don’t want to miss festivities or fear they will receive substandard treatment, researchers reported in a study published this month in the online edition of the journal Circulation.

“It’s very common to see problems over the holidays,” said Neal Weintraub, a cardiologist at University Hospitals. “These people often do tend to be sicker because they delay coming in.”

Some patients avoid seeking treatment on Christmas because they are traveling and don’t want to gamble on an unfamiliar doctor or hospital, several doctors said.

“We see a lot of patients on a periodic basis,” said Larry Helvey, director of emergency medicine at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “You lose that when you travel. People are away from the health care they are familiar with.”

Some people also fear they will receive poor care on holidays because top staff are taking vacation, the study found.

While hospitals may staff fewer doctors or nurses on holidays, the most-dedicated workers often take those shifts, doctors said.

“I’m the medical director, and I’m working Christmas,” Helvey said.

David Stilley, head of emergency services at Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines, said the day after a holiday tends to be the busiest in his emergency room. The same thing happens during major television events.

“During the Macy’s parade or the Super Bowl you could shoot a cannon in here and not hit anyone,” Stilley said. “Afterward we see a rush.”

Weintraub, who treated Washburn in 2001, said people unsure whether their chest pains are signs of a heart attack can cut their hospital time by going to a chest-pain center, found in most metropolitan emergency rooms.

“If you make the wrong decision and you don’t survive, think of all the holidays they will miss in the future,” he said.