I am lucky to be alive. Chalk it up to the stars aligning, someone watching over me, pure chance — and the fact that someone close to me knows CPR.
On October 28, 2013, I suffered a sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). A sudden cardiac arrest is different from a heart attack. A heart attack occurs when the blood supply to the heart is slow or stopped. In most cases, there is some kind of warning such as chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea or lightheadedness.
With a sudden cardiac arrest, however, your heart stops without warning. It’s like an electrical problem with your heart, while a heart attack is like a plumbing problem.
If you experience a sudden cardiac arrest, the odds of survival are not in your favour. Nine out of 10 people who have an SCA die within minutes of the event. Another 5% die in hospital. Only 5% – one in 20 – survive.
I was the one.
But I was the one because others knew what to do.
My cardiac arrest took place at 6:00 a.m. when I was asleep. As luck would have it, my wife Jacqueline, a registered nurse trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), had previously booked a vacation day and was lying beside me that morning.
What happened was this: My heart stopped and I never woke up. Instead, I began Cheyne-Stokes respiration, which is a pattern of rapid and shallow breathing common among people who are dying, and went into convulsions. The unusual sound and movement woke my wife.
Seeing me in distress, she immediately called 9-1-1 and then put her CPR skills to the test by applying hands-only chest compressions. Paramedics arrived on the scene within five minutes and immediately shocked me with a defibrillator and restarted my heart.
My wife and the paramedics are my heroes. Without them, someone else would be telling my story. October 28 was both the worst and the best day of my life
But this article is not really about me; it’s about you.
You, too, can be a hero. A co-worker, a relative or even a stranger might live another day because you learned how to handle a life-threatening situation.
There are three keys to reversing the effects of a sudden cardiac arrest: 9-1-1, CPR and defibrillation. And there is only one enemy: time.
1. Call 9-1-1
Getting professionals to the scene is vital and the quicker they get there, the better the chances for a positive outcome. The 9-1-1 operator can be a calming influence during this emotional time and may also help you locate the closest defibrillator, as many are registered with 9-1-1.
What can you do: If someone has collapsed or is unresponsive, call 9-1-1 immediately. If more than one person is present and you don’t have access to a phone, send someone to make the call. The next steps are CPR and locating an automated external defibrillator (AED), but the priority is calling 9-1-1.
2. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
Cardiac arrest will result in death if not treated immediately. CPR was critical in saving my life because it kept the blood flowing to my brain and other organs until help arrived. This prevented brain damage and other crippling, life-threatening consequences. It also bought me some time until a defibrillator arrived.
What can you do: Learn how to perform CPR, and keep your certification current. Many courses are available that will teach you how to effectively perform this life-saving skill. There have been a number of changes to CPR over the years, so it’s important to understand the do’s and don’ts. Check out the most recent guidelines from the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
3. Automated external defibrillator (AED)
In cases of SCA, the heart needs an electrical shock to restore its natural rhythm. An AED does exactly that, and it’s easy to use. You just turn it on and follow the prompts. Although we have made great strides in Canada in raising awareness and making AEDs more available, they can still be hard to find in offices, stores or other public places.
What can you do: Find out where AEDs are in buildings or public spaces, and make sure they are easily accessible. If they’re not, become an advocate and help raise awareness of the importance of increasing AED availability.
When an SCA strikes and emergency personnel are not immediately available – which is most of the time – it’s up to us to step in and take action. SCAs happen most often at home, at work or in a public place and are often witnessed by family, friends and co-workers. No one should experience the feeling of not knowing what to do.
To find out more on what steps you can take to save a life, visit the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
The rest of my story
After arriving at the hospital that morning, I was placed in a drug-induced coma for six days to stabilize the situation and allow the experts to assess my condition. Eleven days later I was discharged with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) embedded in my chest, and a smile on my face.
The ICD will automatically shock me if I need to kick-start my heart again, but the average Joe who suffers a sudden cardiac arrest is at the mercy of the people around them.
That’s where you come in.
Make today the day you take steps to become the next hero. It will be a life-changing experience for you, and the person whose life you save will be forever grateful.
I guarantee it.
Gerald McGroarty is the Making it work columnist for BrighterLife.ca.
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