A cardiac event can sneak up on you. Understand why every minute counts.
It’s an all-too-familiar news story: “Local resident survives cardiac event thanks to fast-acting witnesses.” The story could sound something like this:
A man in his mid-50s, felt “off” while working out. He had pain in his stomach and assumed it was due to low blood sugar, so he thought he just needed something to raise it. While sitting in the trainer’s office, he passed out. The trainer called 911 and administered CPR. A nurse who happened to be at the gym used an automated external defibrillator (AED) until paramedics arrived. The man was rushed to the cardiac catheterization lab at a local hospital. At the cath lab, doctors opened up his blocked artery with a balloon and stent, and is now in recovery, doing cardio rehab and easing his way back to full workouts.
Sometimes a heart attack can sneak up on you.
The man in this story had no idea a heart attack was waiting to happen. That’s true of many of us, said Alex Power, BSN, RN, CCRN alumnus, U.S. scientific liaison at Roche Diagnostics.
“Men and women experience different symptoms,” Power said. “Men often have crushing chest pain, down the arm and into the jaw. Women tend to have nausea, fatigue or a feeling of apprehension.” But that’s not a hard-and-fast rule.
“We can modify some risk factors with lifestyle changes,” Power said. “But we can’t change our gender, ethnicity or family history.” For example, men are at higher risk of heart attack than women. “This is thought to be the result of the cardioprotective role of estrogen,” Power said. “After menopause, the risk of having a heart attack is the same for men and women.”
“Both men and women may develop cardiovascular disease in their 30s and 40s, but the disease typically manifests in those over the age of 50,” Power said. “By identifying people who are at risk sooner, we can prevent the progression of cardiovascular disease.”
According to the American Heart Association, some heart attacks happen suddenly, but most start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort, and usually occur when blood flow to the heart is suddenly cut off, starving it of oxygen-rich blood. Symptoms can include uncomfortable pressure in the chest, upper body (including back, neck, jaw or stomach), breaking out in a cold sweat or feeling nauseated and lightheaded. Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) differs from a heart attack in that SCA occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating – although about 80% of cases of sudden cardiac arrest are due to existing coronary artery disease.
“From the time you start feeling discomfort, you need to sit down and call 911,” Power said. “Have it checked out. Even if you don’t want to go to the hospital, you need to go.”
At the hospital, the goal is to get you into the cath lab within 60 minutes so the medical staff can check for a blockage.
If you suspect a heart attack, it’s best to seek out the best heart hospital available to you. Unfortunately, some hospitals and ERs don't have the same capabilities as large ones. When it takes hours to transfer a patient, procedures can be delayed, and the results can be fatal.
“When blood can’t get to the heart muscle, individual cells in the heart start to die,” Power said. “Those cells don’t regenerate. Every hour of delay from the onset of symptoms to treatment increases the risk of damage to the heart – and mortality.”
“There’s usually a lot going on when you get there,” Power said. “You’ll be asked to take off your clothes and wear a loose gown, you’ll hear monitors beeping, and you’ll be whisked down the hall and put on a table in the cath lab.”
There, you’ll have a catheter inserted, usually through your wrist, and dye will be flushed through your system so the medical staff can see what’s happening in your heart.
If there’s a blockage, doctors should be able to open it up with a balloon and stent. In a worst-case scenario, you may have a consultation with a vascular surgeon about bypass surgery. By and large, bypass surgery is not as difficult as it used to be due to advances in medicine.”
Yes, you can. Health and wellness measures, as well as diagnostics, can help you improve your cardiovascular health. Power recommends three key to-dos:
Disclaimer: This content is provided for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute providing medical advice or professional services. The information provided should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, and those seeking personal medical advice should consult with a licensed physician. Always seek the advice of your doctor or another qualified health provider regarding a medical condition.
Alex Power, BSN, RN, CCRN alumnus, is an experienced cardiac critical-care registered nurse who has spent 15 years at Roche Diagnostics in the field of cardiac biomarker education.