When a Heart Attack Happens
As more and more of the country’s population is centered in big cities, it becomes more important than ever to be prepared for any type of emergency. We are surrounded by strangers as we walk down the street. They could be people who have a variety of health problems. In fact, the next person could be someone who doesn’t even know they have something dangerous such as a bad heart. While the likelihood isn’t high of someone dropping from a heart attack right in front of you, would you know what to do?
Coronary Heart Disease
A heart attack happens if the flow of oxygen-rich blood to a section of heart muscle suddenly becomes blocked and the heart can’t get oxygen. Most heart attacks occur as a result of coronary heart disease (CHD).
CHD is a condition in which a waxy substance called plaque builds up inside of the coronary arteries. These arteries supply oxygen-rich blood to your heart.
When plaque builds up in the arteries, the condition is called atherosclerosis. The buildup of plaque occurs over many years.
Eventually, an area of plaque can rupture (break open) inside of an artery. This causes a blood clot to form on the plaque’s surface. If the clot becomes large enough, it can mostly or completely block blood flow through a coronary artery.
If the blockage isn’t treated quickly, the portion of heart muscle fed by the artery begins to die. Healthy heart tissue is replaced with scar tissue. This heart damage may not be obvious, or it may cause severe or long-lasting problems.
Coronary Artery Spasm
A less common cause of heart attack is a severe spasm (tightening) of a coronary artery. The spasm cuts off blood flow through the artery. Spasms can occur in coronary arteries that aren’t affected by atherosclerosis.
What causes a coronary artery to spasm isn’t always clear. A spasm may be related to:
- Taking certain drugs, such as cocaine
- Emotional stress or pain
- Exposure to extreme cold
- Cigarette smoking
Recognizing an Attack
Unfortunately it isn’t always easy to tell when a person is actually having a heart attack. The classic signs that we have all seen in the movies of sudden chest pain are not always present. But when this type of attack does happen, that is often when you will find yourself trying to help a stranger who has just collapsed in front of you.
Call for Help
The first five minutes after the attack can be the most crucial. This is why if you have any doubts at all you should still call 911 when you or someone nearby has shown the symptoms of a heart attack. Some people respond to the situation, especially if the victim is someone they know, by insisting that they drive that person to the hospital themselves. But an ambulance can get them help right away and then rush them to the hospital while they stabilize the victim. Unless you have actually taken ACLS training and are certified to help, let the professionals do their job.
Helping Until Paramedics Arrive
If you are with someone that you think may have just had a heart attack or some form of cardiac arrest you can help them stay calm until help arrives. It is important that you help them stay calm and perhaps help them to sit down or even lay down to keep their pressure as normal as possible. If you have an aspirin, especially a baby aspirin available and they are not allergic to it, have them take it now while you wait. Have them chew it as it will work more quickly if they chew it up instead of simply swallowing it whole as most of us normally do with pills.
If They Stop Breathing
Of course the real nightmare for most of us is to have the person stop breathing before the ambulance arrives. If you have taken CPR training this is the time to put that training to work. If you are still on the phone with the 911 operator, they are trained to walk you through it if you have never been trained. They can talk you through the procedure until the ambulance and medics arrive, plus the operator will let them know the situation before they arrive.
Be the Good Samaritan
While we live more and more in a world where many are afraid to act, this is one situation where you need to put that safe cocoon aside and help. Believe it or not there are plenty of tales of good people who saved a stranger’s life because they chose to act. Even something as simple as calling an ambulance and staying with them until it arrives can help.
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