Emergency Medicine
1:21 pm
Thu March 3, 2011

If your heart stops, be in Seattle (but help's coming for the rest)

If your heart suddenly stops beating, your chances of getting revived are better in King County than in the rest of Washington.

The Seattle area has one of the highest survival rates from cardiac arrest in the country. Now, a new campaign in Washington aims to boost survival from cardiac arrest by 50-percent in the rest of the state. 

"It's a big, hairy goal," says Graham Nichol, an emergency physician and director of the University of Washington-Harborview Center for Prehospital Emergency Care.

Cardiac arrest is when someone's heart stops beating. The biggest life-saver is CPR. The rate of what’s called "bystander CPR"--by ordinary people--differs hugely by community. It’s high in King County, but not so high elsewhere. 

"We need people to learn CPR, and not just learn the skills but learn that CPR works," says Nichol.

The good news and bad news

First the bad. About half the people suffering cardiac arrest can't be saved, no matter what treatment is attempted. And, of the 50-percent who could be revived, most are not getting CPR or defibrillation in time, and so they die unnecessarily.

The good news is how simple it is to save a life, and how many lives could be saved. One study found 16 percent of cardiac arrest patients survived in Seattle, compared to just 3 percent in Alabama (published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2008).

If it works here, why not everywhere?

Nichol is leading the statewide cardiac arrest campaign, aimed at spreading best-practices more widely. Washington is one of five states (along with Arizona, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania) receiving funding from the Medtronic Foundation. Each state will get $500,000 a year, for five years.

Medtronic also happens to own Physio-Control, a company in Redmond that makes devices for treating cardiac victims, including automatic external defibrillators (AED), which are promoted as one way to improve survival.

Nichol says each community has its own challenges. In the first phase, medical leaders in each county will figure out what their problem is. That's finally possible because of a Washington state law approved last year, which allows hospitals and emergency responders to share data for the first time.

For example, one county might have a slow response time by medics. Another county might have a hospital that’s not up to speed on which patients can be saved by cooling their bodies.

The effort in Washington gets underway in May, with a CPR festival at Marymoor Park in Redmond.

Signs and symptoms of cardiac arrest

The American Heart Association recommends:

  • Know the warning signs of cardiac arrest. During cardiac arrest a victim loses consciousness, stops normal breathing and loses pulse and blood pressure.
  • Call 9-1-1 immediately to access the emergency medical system if you see any cardiac arrest warning signs.
  • Give cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to help keep the cardiac arrest victim alive until emergency help arrives. CPR keeps blood and oxygen flowing to the heart and brain until defibrillation can be administered.

"Press on the chest hard and fast, until the EMS responders get there," says Nichol.

The Heart Association also offers this groovy video tutorial for hands-only CPR.

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