By Dr. Bruce L. Wilkoff
Do you ever wonder what you’d do if you saw someone experience a life threatening emergency? What if you see someone suddenly collapse and lose consciousness? Do you know what to check for or how to respond? Knowing what to do can help you react immediately and potentially save a life.
When someone collapses, becomes unresponsive, and stops breathing, he or she is most likely experiencing sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). SCA occurs when an electrical malfunction in the heart disrupts its normal beats, making it impossible for blood to be pumped to the rest of the body and causing the organs to shut down. There is a critical window of time, about four to six minutes, after someone experiences SCA when CPR must begin to prevent permanent brain damage and avoid death. Immediate treatment after SCA will double or even triple a victim’s chance of survival.
I had a patient who experienced SCA while working out at his gym. He was in the middle of his normal workout routine when he collapsed with no warning. Fortunately, the people exercising nearby immediately realized that my patient was unconscious and not breathing. Someone quickly called 9-1-1, while one bystander started CPR and another located an automated external defibrillator (AED) in the building. An AED is an easy-to-use portable device that automatically detects and fixes fast-heart rhythms. The AED restores the patient’s heart rhythm to normal, correcting the life-threatening situation with a shock.
Thanks to CPR and the use of an AED, my patient’s heart was shocked back into rhythm and blood began pumping through his heart and to his brain. The immediate attention from those around him kept my patient alive and allowed time for the paramedics to arrive. My patient’s story of rescue is not as common as it could be; if the people in the gym had hesitated to react, this would be a case of sudden cardiac death (SCD) rather than an SCA survival story. Though SCA kills over 250,000 people each year, more than 70 percent of Americans underestimate its seriousness and do not realize that SCA is not the same as a heart attack.
How so? With a heart attack, there are recognizable warning signs that allow the victim to arrive at a hospital in time to receive emergency treatment. Warnings signs for SCA are hidden and often less obvious, however, and because the victim becomes unconscious, CPR treatment must begin immediately. Many airports, gyms and office buildings have AEDs onsite that can also be used to resuscitate an SCA victim.
Do you know if there is an AED at your gym or office building? Next time you go, be proactive and check! Also, look into CPR certification classes—using CPR is just as helpful as an AED. You never know when you might need to help save a life.
What can you do if you see someone experience SCA?
Step 1: Call 9-1-1 as soon as possible.
Step 2: Start CPR immediately; hands-only CPR is proven to be just as effective as mouth-to-mouth.
Step 3: Use an AED if one is available.
Step 4: Stay with the victim until the medical team or paramedics arrive.
So, who can you talk to about SCA and the potential risks? There is a special type of heart doctor that takes care of patients with heart rhythm problems—an electrophysiologist. Not all cardiologists are specially trained to identify patients at increased risk of SCA. The electrophysiologist can help you to know if you, your family members, or friends are at risk of SCA. Find one near you by going here.
Bruce L. Wilkoff, M.D., is the 2011-2012 President of the Heart Rhythm Society, a staff cardiologist and Director of Cardiac Pacing and Tachyarrhythmia Devices in the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. In addition, he is Professor of Medicine at Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University.
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