3 tips to survive a heart attack

August 12, 2021 | by Tom Scaletta, M.D.
Categories: Healthy Driven Hearts

Each year, close to 400,000 Americans experience the most deadly type of heart attack, called a STEMI (ST-elevation myocardial infarction).

An ST elevation EKG pattern indicates blood hasn't been reaching a significant part of the patient's heart for a while as a result of blocked arteries. The longer the delay in clearing the blockage, the greater the damage to the heart and the greater chance of dying.

Fortunately, there are ways you can improve the chances you or a loved one will survive a STEMI and other types of heart attacks:

  1. Know the symptoms. Pay attention to unexplained tightness, a squeezing sensation or pressure in your chest. Most heart attacks come on slowly with mild discomfort, but sometimes they're sudden and intense. There also can be discomfort in other areas of the upper body, such as the jaw. Shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness and sweating are other common symptoms.

  2. Learn CPR. Sometimes a heart attack causes the heart to stop beating. But CPR provided immediately after a cardiac arrest can double or even triple the victim's chances of survival.

  3. Call 911. Many heart attack patients are driven to the hospital by relatives or, worse yet, they endanger others by driving themselves. Paramedics can start treatment as soon as they pick up the patient, and then drive to the hospital more quickly than a non-emergency vehicle. People are often in denial and don't call 911 because they refuse to believe the symptoms may be serious. But it's critical that people call 911 when chest pain or shortness of breath suddenly occurs. Paramedics can start an IV in the ambulance, give medications and use the defibrillator. And municipal ambulances in our area and in many other communities are equipped with EKGs that can be administered and interpreted in the field.

The key to effective treatment of any type of heart attack is time. That’s why awareness of heart attack symptoms, performing CPR and calling 911 are so critical. They set the wheels in motion for what we can do in the ER and hospital.

Research has established 90 minutes as the goal from a STEMI patient's arrival at the hospital to the completion of a procedure to treat the heart attack, something known as “door-to-balloon time.” The more time that goes by before blood flow is restored, the greater the chance of permanent damage to the heart muscle.

Usually, the best practice for clearing blockage in STEMI patients is a procedure, done in a catheterization lab, called percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI). One type of PCI is an angioplasty, in which a catheter is threaded from the patient's groin through the body to the blockage in the coronary artery. Once there, a balloon is expanded to open the artery. Afterward, a stent (small tube) is often left behind to keep the vessel open. In other cases, open heart surgery is needed to create a new conduit so blood can bypass the damaged area.

Hospitals that don't have catheterization labs can stabilize patients and transfer them to a PCI-capable hospital. If a transfer can't be done on a timely basis, the patient may be given an alternative treatment, a clot-busting drug, which is most effective if administered soon after symptoms appear.

At Edward and Elmhurst Hospitals, we have systems in place for prompt, streamlined treatment of heart attack patients. The alert sometimes begins when the paramedic calls to announce they're bringing in a STEMI patient. This triggers preparation of our catheterization labs, as well as calls to cardiologists and other staff, leading to appropriate treatment of heart attack patients.

Find out if you’re at risk for heart disease. Take a free five-minute test that could save your life.

Learn more about heart care at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Tom Scaletta, MD, is an emergency medicine physician and Medical Director of Emergency Services at Edward Hospital.

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