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What to do if a loved one has a heart attack

By The Health News Team | January 5, 2022
Man clutching his chest from a heart attack

If we were still standing around water coolers — rather than working from home — we’d all be talking about this: What on earth was that character thinking when she didn’t dial 911 soon after finding her one “big” love in distress after a workout?

In an episode of “And Just Like That” — the new mini-series revival of “Sex and the City,” the late-’90s/early-2000s TV show about four female friends exploring the Manhattan dating scene — a 66-year-old character known as “Big” (played by Chris Noth) participates in an intense workout on a home exercise bike. Soon after, he collapses in the shower as he experiences a heart attack.

His wife, Carrie (portrayed by Sarah Jessica Parker), rushes in and rather than calling 911 — as many fans across the country futilely screamed at their screens for her to do — she held him in her arms, tears cascading down her face, as he died.

Not only were viewers crushed, but they were also peeved. If Carrie had called for help, could Big have been saved?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s possible. Early action is crucial when it comes to surviving a heart attack.

Call 911
In the U.S., someone has a heart attack — also called a myocardial infarction — every 40 seconds. This happens when a part of the heart muscle does not receive enough blood. And what occurs immediately after a heart attack is crucial in determining whether a person lives or dies.

The most important step — and one neither TV character took — is to call 911 if you notice symptoms of a heart attack in yourself or someone else.

Symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort in the center or left side of the chest that feels like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain, and lasts for more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back

  • Feeling weak, light-headed or faint

  • Breaking out into a cold sweat

  • Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck or back

  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms or shoulders

  • Shortness of breath

  • Unusual or unexplained tiredness, nausea or vomiting (more prevalent in women)

“It is vital to get emergency care for anyone experiencing a heart attack,” says Dr. Jay Pandhi, a cardiologist affiliated with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. “The sooner an ambulance reaches them, and they get to an emergency room, the sooner care providers can start treatment and help reduce the amount of damage to the heart.”

In some cases, a heart attack requires cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Defibrillation can help if someone is experiencing sudden cardiac arrest — a condition where the heart malfunctions and suddenly stops beating unexpectedly. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), a heart attack is a “circulation” problem, and sudden cardiac arrest is an “electrical” problem.

The two heart conditions are linked, the AHA says, as sudden cardiac arrest can occur after a heart attack. Additionally, heart attacks increase the risk for sudden cardiac arrest.

Bystanders trained to use CPR or with access to an automated external defibrillator (AED) may be able to help until emergency medical personnel arrive. At the hospital, health care providers will perform tests to find out if a heart attack or sudden cardiac arrest is occurring and decide the appropriate treatment.

How to prevent a heart attack
An irony of the show’s episode that went viral for all the wrong reasons is that Big dies from a heart attack after doing one of the things known to help prevent heart attacks: exercising. Unfortunately, the character ignored some of the other heart attack prevention tips as he regularly smoked cigars, ate red meat and enjoyed cocktails.

The AHA recommends the following tips to prevent heart attacks:

  • Stop smoking. If you smoke, quit now. If you don’t smoke, don’t start.

  • Choose good nutrition. A healthy diet — featuring lots of vegetables, fruits and whole grains; including low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, legumes, nuts and nontropical vegetable oils; and limiting intake of sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages and red meats — is one of the best defenses against cardiovascular disease.

  • Reduce blood cholesterol. Lower the intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol, and exercise regularly. If diet and physical activity alone don’t help lower cholesterol numbers, then medication may be necessary.

  • Lower high blood pressure. Decrease salt intake, take medications as recommended by your doctor, and exercise.

  • Be physically active every day. At least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity can help lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol and keep weight at a healthy level.

  • Aim for a healthy weight. Good nutrition, controlling calorie intake and physical activity can help maintain a healthy weight.

  • Manage diabetes. At least 68% of people age 65 or older with diabetes die of some form of heart disease.

  • Reduce stress. Studies show a relationship between stress and heart disease risk.

  • Limit alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure and increase your heart disease risk.

“Whether people learn how to prevent heart attack through watching a TV show or listening to their doctor’s advice, what matters most is that they monitor their health and follow the prevention tips,” Dr. Pandhi says. “It is important to talk with your loved ones and doctor about the risk of heart attack, how to change lifestyles to prevent heart attack, and what to do in case of heart attack. If this show taught us anything, it is that prevention and fast action are crucial.”

See the CPR and first-aid classes available through Sharp HealthCare.

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