Cardiac Arrest Bystanders Are Key to a Patient’s Survival — Here’s How to Make a Difference

Cardiac arrest claims the lives of over 135 million people worldwide annually, and killed 475,000 Americans in just one year, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). A staggering 350,000 Americans had a cardiac episode outside of a hospital – in a public place, at home, or in a non-hospital facility like a nursing home – in 2015 alone. Sadly, the majority of people who experience cardiac arrest, especially outside of a hospital setting, won’t survive.

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It turns out bystanders like you might be able to change those statistics. A recent article published in The New England Journal of Medicine reiterates his point. After studying the stats on individuals who survive cardiac arrests, University of Virginia emergency medicine physician William J. Brady, MD and his team found that only 8% of people survive cardiac arrests outside of a hospital. The chance of a person surviving is significantly greater if a bystander gets involved after witnessing cardiac arrest. 

Dr. Oz has always been passionate about spreading the message of CPR and with this new article, it seems worth it to refresh everyone’s memory on it – as well as how to recognize when someone is in distress. The power of one can be more meaningful than you think. If you can learn to quickly identify the signs and symptoms of cardiac arrest, begin CPR, and (if appropriate, and if one is available) use a defibrillator (aka an AED machine) to shock a person’s heart back into a normal rhythm, you may just be able to save a life while waiting for help to arrive.

Signs to Look For 

Before springing into action, you need to know what cardiac arrest looks like. 

If you notice someone who has completely stopped breathing and has lost consciousness, there’s a good chance he or she may be experiencing a cardiac episode, according to the AHA. 

It’s important to note that this is different than a heart attack. During a heart attack, one or more of the coronary arteries is blocked and the heart stops receiving its normal supply of blood. While this is sometimes a cause of cardiac arrest, other things can cause cardiac arrest as well. During cardiac arrest, a malfunction causes the heart to stop pumping blood effectively, usually very suddenly, so the rest of the body – the brain, lungs, and other major organs – is starved of its supply of blood and oxygen. 

While some people might have symptoms directly before cardiac arrest, like chest pains, breathing problems, fatigue or weakness, or heart palpitations, this condition can sometimes come on suddenly. If a person collapses and is not responding at all, check for a pulse. If they don’t have one, it’s safe to assume they may be experiencing a cardiac event. If this is the case, the best course of action is to begin performing CPR. Do not perform CPR if the person has a pulse or if they are breathing in any way.

How to Perform CPR

The AHA now endorses compression-only CPR, which means breathing into a victim’s mouth isn’t required. If you’re not sure how to do chest compressions the right way, check out these handy resources, like this easy-to-follow video that covers the basics, as well as specific guides for how to perform life-changing chest compressions properly on infants, children, and adults.

Dr. Oz recommends learning to associate CPR with the songs “Stayin’ Alive” or “Row Row Row Your Boat.” That is, 100 to 120 pumps per minute, which translates to every beat of each of the aforementioned songs. He encourages people to jump into action, by ditching the mouth-to-mouth portion of CPR. He says it’s not medically necessary to keep someone alive. What’s most important is to 1. Point to someone and direct them to call 9-1-1. 2. Place one hand over the person’s breast bone and your other hand on top of that one. Lean over the body to use your entire body weight to pump, and push down about two inches into the chest and then repeat. If you break someone’s ribs in the process, says Dr. Oz, then so be it. It’s better to keep someone alive now and worry about any broken bones later.

While it can feel intimidating to try to give CPR, bystanders really can make a huge difference in a person’s chances for survival. In 2010, a review of 10,000 cardiac arrest patients was conducted; 22.1% of patients who received pre-arrival care (CPR or other assistance prior to being admitted to the hospital) survived, while only 7.8% of patients who did not receive such care survived.

To be clear – no matter how comfortable you feel performing CPR, and no matter how informed you are about cardiac arrest, you should always direct someone to dial 911 immediately or call yourself if someone else is performing CPR.

When to Use an AED 

If you have access to an AED, short for automated external defibrillator, point to somebody and tell them to get it (usually at the same time as telling somebody to call 9-1-1). Although it helps to be trained, AEDs have easy-to-understand visual and verbal clues and can be used by anybody. These portable devices work by sending an electrical shock to the heart which can shock it back into a normal rhythm. 

Any bystander who is able to quickly jump into action by performing CPR with or without a defibrillator could keep someone’s heart beating for several crucial minutes between the start of the attack and the arrival of medical professionals. As Dr. Brady stated in his journal article, “for every minute that a person with out-of-hospital cardiac arrest goes without CPR and defibrillation, the chance of survival decreases by 7 to 10%.”

Those numbers are enormous when talking about a life-or-death situation. The ability to recognize the signs of cardiac arrest, learning CPR, and most importantly, having the confidence to take action, could save a person’s life.

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