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How to handle heart emergencies

Lankenau Medical Center April 23, 2014 General Wellness

a building defibrillator sign with heart iconWhen you or someone you know has a sudden cardiac emergency, the first step is always seeking medical attention. Picking up the phone and calling 911 in emergency situations should be your first priority, but what should you do in the time until help arrives, and how should you handle an emergency situation when you’re far away from the nearest treatment center? Learning how to handle cardiac emergencies safely and properly could save a life.

The best way to handle a cardiac arrest is to prevent it, if possible. Most cardiac arrests are associated with the onset of a heart attack so that the recognition of symptoms of a heart attack are crucial. Chest pressure or pain, the sudden onset of shortness of breath, severe indigestion-like symptoms especially when associated with sweating, light headedness, or palpitations should prompt a 911 call so that a defibrillator will be available should a cardiac arrest occur.

“Sudden cardiac arrest can be reversed if it is treated within the first minutes of it occurring, which is why it is so important for the general public to understand the appropriate steps to take in a cardiac emergency situation if and when they should ever encounter one,” explains Lankenau Heart Institute cardiologist Irving M. Herling, MD.

Dr. Herling reiterates that the first step to take in an emergency is to dial 911 yourself or ask another person at the scene to do it as you begin to take action and treat the individual using one of two recommended response tactics: CPR and AED.

CPR, which stands for cardiopulmonary resuscitation, is the most widely-known way to respond to a variety of medical emergencies, including sudden cardiac arrest. CPR is an emergency technique that is used to help an individual whose heart or breathing has stopped.

“When the heart stops beating, blood ceases to circulate through the body, which can cause brain damage within the first few minutes,” says Dr. Herling. “However, CPR can keep oxygenated blood flowing to the brain and vital organs, providing the victim’s body a service it cannot necessarily provide itself.”

Although CPR cannot restart a beating heart that has stopped, it can save a life until emergency help arrives to provide more aggressive treatment. Many organizations, including Main Line Health and the American Red Cross, offer free CPR training and certification programs to prepare you for emergencies and educate the public on the proper CPR technique.

Unlike CPR, an AED (automatic external defibrillator) is a device rather than a technique that is used to treat a victim. An AED has a built-in computer that can assess a person’s heart rhythm, judge whether defibrillation is needed, and administer an electric shock if it is. For the person administering the AED, the device provides audio or visual prompts to aid them through the process.

“AED devices are not designed to be used by medical professionals or emergency responders. What makes them so helpful is that they are designed for non-medical people who are simply responding to an emergency at that moment,” says Dr. Herling.

An AED is not guaranteed to save a life, especially in certain medical situations. However, it can improve chances for survival. After administering the shock from an AED, you should continue to provide CPR until medical help arrives.

But where can you find an AED in an emergency? Thanks to increased awareness of their importance and benefits, the answer is plenty of public places, including offices, shopping centers, airports, restaurants, hotels, sports complexes and local schools and universities. Most public access AED devices and signs designating their location are brightly colored and easy to locate.

Although the device provides cues and instructions, it is also a good idea to find local AED training classes or opportunities so that you are prepared to use one, should the need ever arise.

“In instances of cardiac emergencies, every minute matters,” says Dr. Herling. “Educating yourself as to the tactics and techniques to use in these situations can save a life.”