It is an indescribably scary situation to either experience a heart attack yourself or witness someone you love go through one. If you ever find yourself in this situation, here’s what to do to increase the affected person’s chances of survival.
Before it Happens: Be Prepared
The key to executing an effective response to a heart emergency is to arm yourself with knowledge ahead of time. Waiting until the incident occurs to look up nearby hospitals, phone numbers, and related information is not recommended. This may cost you precious time, and you or your loved ones may wind up in worse conditions.
The critical information that you should have readily available in case of a heart attack or another cardiac emergency includes:
- Addresses and contact information for the nearest emergency 24/7 hospitals or emergency rooms. Make sure they are equipped to provide urgent heart care.
Note: Pass this information on to your friends and family—especially those close enough to assist with emergency transportation.
- Write down emergency rescue phone numbers or save them on your phone.
- Have a plan ready. Tell your loved ones to call 911 or 999 (ambulance) in case of enduring chest pain (specifically, if it lasts for more than a few minutes). You or the vulnerable person may be unable to communicate at the time of the cardiac emergency, so loved ones should be able to recognize the signs independently.
- If you have a relative in a long-term care facility or nursing home, ensure the staff has active PALS or ACLS certifications.
Recognize the Symptoms of a Heart Emergency
The two main types of cardiac emergencies that you or a loved one might suddenly face are a heart attack or sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). Here is a brief explanation of each to help you understand the differences:
- Heart attack: This is when the blood flow to a part of the heart muscle is suddenly interrupted. In this case, the person can still retain consciousness and will continue breathing since the heart can still pump blood throughout the body.
- SCA: A heart attack can increase someone’s chances of experiencing cardiac arrest. This is when the heart stops entirely, causing the person to lose consciousness. They might not be breathing, cannot move, and will not respond to any stimulation.
Note: This condition is highly likely to be fatal, as 70-90% of cardiac arrest victims die before reaching the hospital. You must discuss these symptoms with your loved ones as early as possible. This way, everyone can familiarize themselves with the signs and act without hesitation when the need arises.Medical professionals can go a bit further, learning the h’s and t’s—that is, the factors that contribute to pulseless arrest.
Contacting Emergency Help and Actions Thereafter
The first thing you should do during a heart attack is call 999 for an ambulance, 911, or the local emergency number. Then, ensure the affected person remains still and allows themselves to rest.
Getting up and moving around during this time will put excessive strain on the heart and increase the risk of the heart attack turning into cardiac arrest. Once the person is resting, follow the steps below to increase their chances of survival and recovery:
- Loosen clothing that may be too tight or otherwise putting pressure on the body, especially the chest.
- Adults should take 325 mg of aspirin or four low-dose tablets (each 81 mg).
Note: Avoid aspirin if you have an aspirin allergy, a medical history of bleeding problems, or other reasons you previously discussed with a medical expert.
- If the person loses consciousness, then you must begin CPR.
How to Perform CPR in a Heart Emergency
Performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on a person experiencing a heart attack can quite literally save their life. If the person becomes unresponsive or stops breathing, you must act quickly.
It’s not ideal to perform CPR without ever having practiced it before. Part of the preparation discussed above should be enrollment in a First Aid class. This will introduce you to proper CPR techniques so you’ll know what to expect before you’re in the moment.
However, not everyone has the opportunity to learn in advance. If this is the case for you, here are the key CPR steps to keep your loved one alive while you wait for help to arrive:
- Position your hand’s heel on the person’s breastbone, in the middle of their chest.
- Place your other hand on top of the first hand.
- Lock your fingers together.
- Use your full body weight to push down on their chest. Do this by pressing straight down by 2-2.5″.
- Repeat Step 4 at a frequency of 100-120 per minute. This is equivalent to following the beat of the Bee Gees’ song “Stayin’ Alive” or another song at a similar tempo.
One of the most important things to note about performing CPR is that you can break the person’s ribs or sternum as you’re performing chest compressions. Fortunately, it’s not that common, as only about 30% of CPR survivors end up with broken ribs or sternums.
Understandably, you might be scared when you notice that a fracture has occurred. Still, you must persist in the compressions, as it’s better to have a few cracked bones than to lose a life entirely.
Please make sure that you or someone else has contacted emergency authorities before performing CPR. You cannot stop once you start, so you’ll need to be sure someone is on the way once the process has begun.
Using an AED to Save Someone in Cardiac Distress
Automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) are often portrayed as equipment that should be exclusively used by medical professionals. Fortunately, this is not the case, and anyone can easily learn to use a defibrillator with basic training.
If you observe heart emergency symptoms in your loved one’s behavior, you’ll need to turn to the defibrillator as quickly as possible.
The specific instructions for AEDs vary depending on the model. Luckily, they’re quite easy to follow, as they provide user-friendly audio or visual prompts for each step. Still, it’s best to familiarize yourself with the equipment before an emergency arises.
Rest assured that you cannot be shocked when using an AED. They are designed only to administer an electrical current through the chest to “jumpstart” the heart.
If you already have an AED in the home, using this with CPR is almost twice as likely (23% vs. 14%) to save your loved one’s life than CPR alone.
Every second matters when you’re attempting to save someone’s life during a heart emergency. Whether they’re suffering from a heart attack or SCA, you must act quickly to call authorities and perform CPR or use an AED if necessary.
Throughout the entire ordeal, make sure to keep your phone on you, keep pets out of the way, and unlock your door to ensure that emergency help can enter and take over immediately upon arrival.