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Doctors: Know What to Do for Heart Attack or Cardiac Arrest

The CDC recommends schools, businesses and public gathering places keep an artificial external defibrillator available.
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The CDC recommends schools, businesses and public gathering places keep an artificial external defibrillator available.

February is American Heart Month, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, where someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds.

If someone is showing signs of a coronary emergency, doctors say you should first call 911. Then, if it's called for, perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation to restart the blood flow to the heart. Doctors said it is important to know whether the emergency is a heart attack or a cardiac arrest.

Dr. Ravi Johar, chief medical officer at UnitedHealthcare, said it can make a difference in how the patient is treated.

"A heart attack occurs when an artery is blocked and prevents blood from reaching the heart muscle, so it's a circulation issue," Johar explained. "A cardiac arrest is triggered by an electrical malfunction in the heart, where the heartbeat stops or is interrupted in some way. So, that's more of an electrical issue."

Johar pointed out brain death can occur within about three minutes -- and irreversible damage within eight minutes -- after the heart stops beating. He said performing CPR gives the patient a much better chance of survival.

While some heart attacks occur without prior warning, Johar noted many people may have a genetic predisposition to heart disease, and be under a doctor's care to stay healthy. He stressed if a heartbeat cannot be restored with CPR, you should use an automated external defibrillator device to 'shock' the heart back into its rhythm.

"That's why an automatic defibrillator that you see in so many buildings and everywhere now, is much more effective with a cardiac arrest," Johar stated. "Because it's sending an electrical impulse to get the heart started again."

Experts say too few people know how to administer CPR in an emergency, although basic and advanced courses are inexpensive and easy to find.

Sherry Sabotka, instruction coordinator for Great Lakes CPR in Traverse City, said the more people who learn, the more lives can be saved.

"It's important for lay rescuers, because the sooner CPR is started and an AED is available, the better chance that person has to survive," Sabotka emphasized. "It helps keep oxygenated blood flowing to the brain and other organs until normal heart rhythm is restored."

For a list of locations to learn CPR, contact your local chapter of the American Red Cross.

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