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Don't Be Afraid to Save a Life

Steps You Can Take to Prevent Unnecessary Deaths

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January 3, 2013

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post on November 26, 2012.

By Dr. Amer Aldeen

If, while you are shopping this holiday season, another shopper suddenly collapses in front of you, would you know what to do? Would your CPR lessons come back immediately -- or would you call 911 and stand back in fear of doing something wrong?

Your answer could be the difference between life and death.

When a heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating, it's known as sudden cardiac arrest. Sudden cardiac arrest is different from a heart attack; unlike the latter, it can happen to any person, at any age, at any time, without warning symptoms. Most important, sudden cardiac arrest is far more deadly.

More than 9 out of 10 Americans who suffer sudden cardiac arrest will die from it -- a mortality rate that's three times that of a heart attack. Sudden cardiac arrest kills more than 300,000 people in the U.S. each year -- more than breast cancer, lung cancer, and AIDS combined.

But death from sudden cardiac arrest is not inevitable. In fact, it is perhaps the only deadly medical condition in which quick-thinking bystanders--people who have no professional medical background--can almost triple survival rates. Knowing the few simple actions to take if sudden cardiac arrest strikes can give you the power to save lives.

And yet few of us know what those actions might be--or feel confident undertaking them.

Here are the five key factors that could save a life from sudden cardiac arrest:

  • early recognition and calling 911;
  • chest compressions (with no mouth-to-mouth needed)
  • defibrillation (when the victim gets electrically shocked in medical shows on TV after everyone stands back and yells "Clear!");
  • advanced cardiac life support;
  • and definitive hospital care.

Notice that the first three factors don't depend on medical professionals, but on bystanders. You.

Almost anyone can do chest compressions -- which are as effective as regular CPR (chest compressions with mouth-to-mouth ventilation) for most cases of sudden cardiac arrest. This can be learned easily, cheaply, and quickly. You don't have to take a formal certification class; watching short, free training videos works just as well.

That's also true of using automated external defibrillators, those encased boxes bearing the sign "AED" that you see scattered throughout airports and malls and other public places. You can use those to save lives.

If chest compressions are so easy to learn and effective, why does only one out of every three sudden cardiac arrest victims receive them? Why do only 5 percent of victims get treated with an automated external defibrillator? Quite simply, people are afraid. They are afraid of causing more harm than good, of being sued, of performing mouth-to-mouth ventilation, and of (literally) shocking someone.

But the odds of you causing lasting harm are infinitesimally small. Good Samaritan laws across the country strongly protect individuals acting in good faith to help collapsed victims of presumed sudden cardiac arrest. High quality chest compressions are far easier to learn and practice than regular CPR, and mouth-to-mouth ventilation is not needed in most cases. Automated external defibrillators are now simpler to use than ever, "talking" users through exact steps that are straightforward enough for even third-graders to follow.

We desperately need a broad public health education campaign to replace lack of information (and misinformation) about these life-saving facts. High school students should be required to know how to perform these two life-saving actions before they graduate. Government institutions and private employers should be required to train all employees in these skills. Messaging about sudden cardiac arrest should be as easily read and commonly visible as fire safety posters, in public places like malls, bus terminals, and airports. Entertainment and sporting events should publicize this simple health education message during breaks.

Until then, you can do your part. If someone collapses in front of you in the mall or parking garage and doesn't respond to a vigorous shake, call 911, put the phone on speaker, and start doing chest compressions at 100 beats per minute. Ask the people around you to find an automated external defibrillator. When it arrives, have someone take over chest compressions while you open and use the defibrillator. By the time you're done, paramedics should be on their way to do the rest.

Still afraid? Think about this: in the time it took you to read this article, four more people died, unnecessarily, of sudden cardiac arrest. They might all still be alive if a bystander had known what to do. If one of those were someone you love this season, wouldn't you want a bystander to forget her fears and act?

- Dr. Amer Aldeen is an Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine.
Topics: Opinion