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Spring 2011 - 911 Know-How

What to do when you think you are having a heart attack

We’ve all seen the Hollywood version of someone having a heart attack. The actor, in the midst of a heated argument, suddenly grips his chest in pain and, wide-eyed, drops to the floor.

“Breaths are no longer a required component of CPR because most patients who are going to survive have enough oxygen to survive the fi rst 8 to 10 minutes, so we focus on continuous chest compressions.”
                                       — Brent Myers, MD

Well, it doesn’t always happen that way. In fact, whether you are a man or a woman, you are more likely to experience the atypical or less common heart attack symptoms, such as shortness of breath, dizziness, weakness, syncope (passing out), abdominal pain or actual cardiac arrest. You may experience one, some or all of these symptoms, and they may come and go.

When people have these symptoms, they often rationalize them as “Must be something I ate,” and put off calling 911. Wrong move. Whether you are having the “Hollywood version” of heart attack symptoms or some of those less common symptoms, do the following immediately.

1. Call 911, preferably from a land line – When you use a land line phone instead of your cell phone, the dispatcher will see your home address on his/her screen. If you do use a cell phone, give your address to the emergency medical dispatcher twice for verification.

Dr. Brent Myers, medical director of Wake County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and a WakeMed Emergency Department physician, notes that there are several reasons to call 911:

  • Emergency Medical Dispatchers can talk to you about your symptoms and tell you what to do.
  • Once, they reach you, EMS providers can perform an electrocardiogram to test your heart’s electrical activity. They can then send your results to the emergency department, cardiologist or the EMS medical director for immediate confi rmation and interpretation. This means evaluation and treatment starts right away — before you even get to the hospital. This is critical because the longer you wait, the more damage your heart can incur
  • “The Greyhound Reason” – Leave the driving to EMS. Not every hospital is capable of providing 24/7 emergent cardiac catheterization, the preferred treatment for most heart attacks. EMS providers can swiftly take you to a hospital that is prepared to provide the emergency care you need.
  • Most importantly, EMS providers have the tools to restart your heart if it stops.

2. Gather your medications – Give all the medications you take — including the dosages — to the EMS providers when they come to your home. In fact, it is alway a good idea to have this list prepared for doctor visits and emergencies.

3. Make it easier on EMS – Turn your house lights on, unlock the door, and, if someone is with you, have them stand in the driveway to wave down the ambulance driver.

4. Aspirin Dos and Don’ts – Unless you are allergic to aspirin, immediately chew four uncoated baby aspirins or one adult aspirin to keep your blood platelets from sticking together. Powder analgesics and ibuprofen products will not thin out platelets like aspirin. If you can take aspirin, keep it in your home.

If you or someone you are with is experiencing the signs and symptoms of a heart attack, don’t wait and don’t drive to the hospital. Call 911 right away for lifesaving help.