Home Is Where The Heart Stops

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Cardiac Arrest

A cardiac arrest is a life-or-death emergency no matter where it occurs. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, eight of every 10 cardiac arrests take place at home and not in a hospital setting.

"That means if you ever witness a cardiac arrest, it will likely be in someone close to you," says Michael Shuster, Heart and Stroke Foundation spokesperson and emergency physician. "And the very best chance they have of surviving is for you to recognize what is happening and react quickly by starting cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and calling 9-1-1. That gives each of us a very personal reason for taking a CPR class."

Each year there are between 35,000 and 45,000 cases of cardiac arrest in Canada. A cardiac arrest occurs when the heart stops beating regularly and can no longer pump blood through the body. Fewer than five per cent survive outside a hospital setting. Yet more than 70 per cent might survive if CPR and defibrillation are available in time, says Dr. Shuster, who is also Chair of the Foundation's Policy Advisory Committee on Resuscitation.

He notes that one of the key components learned in a CPR class is recognition of the early signs of a heart attack. "While some heart attacks do happen without warning, most develop gradually. Yes, there are times when a person clutches their chest and keels over, the Hollywood heart attack, but the reality is that only happens occasionally."

Most often, a heart attack starts slowly, as a pain or pressure or squeezing or tightness, or discomfort in the chest. The important thing is to call 9-1-1 right away at any of the signs, and not just 'wait and see' if it goes away on its own.

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"Knowing the signs can help you recognize an impending attack and get emergency help right away, before the heart suffers irreversible muscle damage, or stops beating altogether, a cardiac arrest, which truly is a life-or-death drama."

Once the heart stops pumping, seconds count. For every minute that passes without intervention, a person's chance of surviving drops by about 10 per cent. This is when the skills learned in a CPR class can keep blood circulating until emergency services arrive with a defibrillator to shock the heart back into normal rhythm, says Dr. Shuster.

"People who go into cardiac arrest and receive immediate emergency care have an excellent chance of making a full recovery," agrees Heart and Stroke Foundation spokesperson and cardiologist Dr. Anthony Graham, "because there is little or no damage to the muscle of the heart." Without immediate CPR, the chances of recovery drop to fewer than one in 20.

Dr. Graham describes CPR as a "basic life skill" that people should learn for the heart health of friends and loved ones, and adds learning those skills is easy and inexpensive.

"An investment of just a few hours to take a class could make the difference between life and death for someone close to you," notes Dr. Graham.

During CPR Awareness Month in November, the Heart and Stroke Foundation urges all Canadians to learn to recognize the signals of a heart attack and stroke. Information on CPR courses across Canada can be obtained by calling the Heart and Stroke Foundation at 1-888-HSF-INFO (1-888-473-4636) or visiting our Web site at www.heartandstroke.ca

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