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Topics > Healthy Outlook > Speed is Key for a Heart Emergency

Speed is Key for a Heart Emergency

Published by Contra Costa Times

Posted on Wednesday, May 19, 2010
By Pam Dodson, RN

You are shopping, working or out for a run. Someone walks by and collapses. You notice they are jerking a little and then go limp. Would you know what to do?

Sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of natural death in the United States, taking more than 350,000 lives each year—more than are lost to lung cancer, breast cancer and AIDS combined. It strikes people of all ages and often without warning.

Nationwide, 6-7% of sudden cardiac arrest victims survive. Those who survive typically have four things in common:
1. Someone calls 911 after seeing a person fall and become unresponsive.
2. Someone starts CPR immediately.
3. Someone arrives and uses a defibrillator within three to five minutes.
4. Paramedics perform advanced life support care.

In these cases, the community had a strong "Chain of Survival." Being prepared for a cardiac emergency is key to a successful outcome.

You might have heard about Contra Costa Emergency Medical Services' HeartSafe Community campaign. That's what this is about: Creating a strong "Chain of Survival" by teaching people about cardiac emergencies (heart attack, stroke and sudden cardiac arrest). National Emergency Medical Services Week is May 16-22. Mark it by learning how to prevent death from these conditions.

Sudden cardiac arrest
Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the heart stops. At this point, a person is considered dead and will stay that way unless treatment begins immediately.

When a person falls, check to see if he or she is awake and OK. If there is no response, call 911 and begin CPR. If you don't know CPR, the 911 dispatcher will instruct you over the phone. If there is an automated external defibrillator (AED) available, send someone to get it. The AED can detect the person's heart rhythm and with a shock can restore it to normal. Since you called 911, paramedics should arrive shortly.

Heart attack
Heart attacks occur when blood stops flowing to heart muscle. The blockage causes heart muscle in the area to die. Symptoms may include chest discomfort (pressure, squeezing or fullness); discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach; shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort; cold sweats, nausea or light-headedness.

Don't wait to seek medical help; waiting can be deadly. The sooner treatment starts (it's best if started within the first hour of symptoms), the greater the chances are of a full recovery. If you think you or someone else is having a heart attack, call 911 as soon as possible.

Strokes most often occur when a clot stops blood flow to the brain. Nearby brain cells stop receiving oxygen and other nutrients and begin to die. Prompt treatment can limit damage and save a life.

Stroke symptoms are:
- Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg (especially on one side of the body)
- Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
- Sudden severe headache with no known cause

Don't wait for symptoms to improve or worsen. If you believe you are having a cardiac emergency, call 911. Calling 911 can save a life and perhaps your own.

Find out more about cardiac emergencies at

Dodson is a Prehospital Care Coordinator with Contra Costa Health Services' Emergency Medical Services Division.

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