Treating Someone Having a Heart Attack
There comes a point in everyones life when they are faced with a medical crisis, whether it be their own health issues or one finds themselves standing on the periphery of another's trauma. I have had the unfortunate luck to watch several of my family members fall victim to a multitude of debilitating diseases, many losing their respective battles within months of onset. You cannot help but to question your own mortality when faced with your families medical history; sometimes you cannot help but feel somewhat screwed. With heart disease, strokes, cancers and neurological disorders swirling around my family like water drains from a sink, I have become a little paranoid.
I have made several steps to limit my chances of getting cancer by changing my lifestyle and diet but if I were to have a heart attack, I would hope my family and friends would know what to do while we waited for emergency services. Suffering a heart attack can lead to further severe health problems, like heart failure or a life-ending arrhythmias, so the faster you react to the first sign of a heart attack, the better chance you give for survival. Heart disease accounts for 25% of deaths in the United States and is the leading cause of death for men and women in North America; everyone should know the signs and symptoms to avoid becoming another statistic.
Statistics of Cardiovascular Disease
Cardiovascular disease deaths
Every seven minutes in Canada, someone dies from heart disease or stroke.
Heart disease and stroke are two of the three leading causes of death in Canada. These statistics are based on 2008 data (the latest year available from Statistics Canada).
In 2008 cardiovascular disease accounted for:
- 29% of all deaths in Canada (69,648 deaths - or more than 69,500)
- 28% of all male deaths
- 29.7% of all female deaths
In 2008, of all cardiovascular deaths:
- 54% were due to ischemic heart disease
- 20% to stroke
- 23% to heart attack
Cost of cardiovascular diseases
Heart disease and stroke costs the Canadian economy more than $20.9 billion every year in physician services, hospital costs, lost wages and decreased productivity.
- source, Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario
Symptoms of a Heart Attack
We have been programmed by television and movies to associate throbbing pain in your left arm to a heart attack, usually within seconds the person has clutched their chest and collapsed in the middle of a crowded room. The music crescendos just as we cut away to a commercial and we bite our lower lip hoping our favourite character is going to live to see the next season. While in actuality there may not be such a telltale sign that someone is having a heart attack, in fact in many women it presents as stubborn indigestion. Here are some symptoms to look out for, to ensure you or your victim lives until the next commercial break:
- Chest pain and discomfort (pretty standard). This can involve unusual pressure, an odd squeezing feeling below your pectoral muscle, an uncomfortable fullness in your chest (similar to bloating after a large meal, only localized within your chest cavity), or a persistant pain in the left side of your chest. Sometimes the pain can be intermittent and pingpong between mild and strong in feeling.
- Discomfort in the upper body, not limited to your neck, back, shoulders, jaw and the upper abdomen. And, the commonly used, pain in one or both arms (not limited to just your left arm)
- Difficulty breathing and shortness of breath, which occurs when experiencing chest discomfort
- Extreme nausea, breaking out in cold sweat, vomiting, dizziness or confusion, caused by extreme light-headedness.
- Fatigue and lack of energy have also been linked to cardiac arrests, often leading up to the actual attack (as the heart is working extremely hard against the hardening arteries)
Now, just because you are experiencing one of these symptoms does not necessarily mean you are having a heart attack but if you, or someone you know, is presenting with more than two of these symptoms contact emergency services, as quickly as possible. It is better to be safe than sorry in the end, we, as human-being's, have the ability to talk ourselves out of anything and often ignore blatant symptoms for there may actually be a problem. Do not be one of those people, especially when dealing with your heart.
You may not be lucky enough to have a second chance.
First Aid: Keeping the Victim Alive until Emergency Services Arrives
There are three ways this may go and you need to know how to handle all situations to achieve the best possible outcome, for your victim; (1) they are breathing and conscious (2) they are unconscious and breathing, or (3) they are not breathing and unconscious. No matter what the situation you find yourself in YOU MUST FIRST CALL EMERGENCY SERVICES, this is paramount and should be adhered to always. You are not a doctor and you do not have the tools to save this person alone, so please, for the sake of the victim, do not try.
If your victim is, both, breathing and conscious when you arrive on the scene and find yourself the only 'qualified' person to help, here are the steps to follow:
- Call emergency services and DO NOT under any circumstances drive the victim to the hospital yourself, unless there is no alternative. Ambulances are equipped with machinery to aide in saving lives while your car, if anything like my friends 'rides', is equipped with a healthy lake of empty coffee cups behind the drivers seat.
- Do not move the victim but instead, cover them with whatever you can (shock will cause the body temperature to drop, causing them to shiver uncontrollably)
- If you have an Aspirin, or one of the bystanders (if any) have one, administer it to the victim (this will keep the blood from clotting, buying emergency services more time), making sure they chew it slowly. Check for allergies, ask the victim if they allergic to it before giving it to them.
- Collect medical and personal information you can pass on to medical services when they arrive, keep them talking and engaged.
- If they begin to slip in and out of consciousness or become unable to answer simple instructions it would be advisable to slowly move them into the recovery position. To ensure their airway is kept open and vomit is easily passable.
In many countries, emergency services will remain on the line with you while you administering aide, this makes it easy to rely on them if you are feeling overwhelmed and cannot remember your training. Remember to keep a calm and even tone with the victim, it is imperative that you do not excite them, especially in victims of a heart attack.
Treating a Victim who is Unconscious and Breathing
During one of my first aid courses, a couple of summers ago, the instructor shared a story where he found an elderly man lying unconscious in a public park, a couple of metres from the lively playground. He could not be sure how long the man was lying there or what had happened, it could have been a myriad of different things but the man was breathing. Our instructor could not stress enough how important it was to get that man into the recovery position as soon as possible. You do not want to compromise the victims ability to breath ever, no matter what the situation.
If your victim is unconscious but breathing then you can surmise the heart is beating, there are two steps to follow in this situation:
- Call emergency services (have I beaten this into your heads yet, lol)
- Roll the victim into the recovery position and wait for emergency services to arrive, do not leave the victim unattended.
Treating a Victim who is Unconscious and Not Breathing
Unfortunately, if your victim has had a heart attack and is in full cardiac arrest than you are most likely going to find yourself in this situation. The most important thing to remember is you need to keep the blood flowing and stave off heart muscle death. You must work efficiently, calmly and use the help of anyone standing around (bystanders are key, in situations like this). Here are the steps to follow:
- Have a bystander call emergency services and stay on the line with them, make sure they give you an ETA on arrival
- Do not waste time searching for a pulse, earlier versions of CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) had you searching for a pulse, this is no longer in practice. Treat all non-breathing victims, as if, they are in full cardiac arrest. Immediately begin CPR and continue with it until emergency services arrives on scene, if you feel yourself getting tired than switch with someone, if available.
There are many instances when CPR is done incorrectly and the patient suffers. The proper ration of chest compressions to breaths should be 30:2 - that's 100 compressions and eight breathes every minutes, one set every 18 seconds. If you succeed in resuscitating the victim then move them into the rescue position, attempt to keep them calm (if they regain consciousness), cover them and wait for emergency services.
Proper CPR, for Good Measure
Do you feel comfortable in your CPR knowledge?
We all have scary familial medical histories lurking in the back of our minds or tucked away under the bed but it does not mean we should not be prepared to handle them. Whether you are the victim or first responder to an emergent situation, remember to stay calm, call emergency services and try to keep the victim alive ...
... because that is all anybody can ask for you to do.