Sixty-one year old Paul Chastain is shoveling snow out on his front walk. The wind is biting cold. The snow is heavy and damp.
As he works, he becomes short of breath. He feels a burning sensation in his chest with each lift of the shovel. Paul thinks he must have pulled a muscle in his chest. He stops for a moment and realizes he is positively drenched with sweat. A sensation of lightheadedness overtakes him. A bit of dizziness comes on. Paul decides the rest of the job will have to wait. He heads into the house for another cup of coffee.
Marta Bingaman is a fit and trim fifty-year-old woman. As she is jogging one day, she pauses at a traffic light and bends to rest her hands on her knees. She feels a pressure in her chest, as if a band were tightening around her rib cage. Her fingertips are tingling. Her heart is pounding, but it usually is after she’s run this far. As the light changes, she is hit by a powerful wave of nausea. She holds onto the light post and weaves a bit, then drops to her knees and vomits violently. Marta feels a little better after a few minutes and she finishes her run.
Thirty-eight-year-old Jeff Wheeling isn’t feeling well this morning. He thinks maybe he has a touch of the flu, or maybe a light case of food poisoning. His stomach feels upset. He has a bloated feeling. He’s belching a lot. He feels weak and tired. There is an ache in his jaw. He thinks maybe he was grinding his teeth in his sleep. Suddenly, he feels the need to evacuate his bowels. He heads into the bathroom. That is where he dies.
If you guessed that each of these people is likely experiencing a heart attack, you guessed right. Heart attack (myocardial infarction) occurs when one of the coronary arteries becomes occluded (usually by a free-floating plaque) killing the heart tissue served by that arterial branch. If the occlusion kills so much tissue the heart can no longer effectively pump blood to the rest of the body, the patient will die. Sometimes, the occlusion does not have to kill off a large part of the heart muscle for the patient to die. The oxygen-starved tissue may have a sort of tantrum, sending the heart into a lethal arrhythmia (a series of dangerous waveforms that interfere with the heart’s normal rhythm). When this happens, the heart is still beating, but not in a manner efficient enough to pump blood to the rest of the body’s vital organs.
The common signs and symptoms with which most people are familiar include a crushing substernal (below the breastbone) chest pain, shortness of breath, and pain or tingling that radiates down one or both arms. A heart attack does not always, nor even usually, manifest in just this way. It can look like flu, a backache, a toothache, dizziness, sudden fatigue, diaphoresis (a drenching sweat in the absence of exertion), and, most ominously, skin color changes to ashen or cyanotic (bluish) hues.
Not all heart attacks are lethal, and may resolve even without medical treatment (though it is always best to seek medical care for such a serious condition). A significant number of people are diagnosed as having the type of damage caused by a heart attack without ever having been aware of any such cardiac event. They just didn’t know they had a heart attack. This is often the case with men who have high pain tolerance levels and who do a lot of hard physical labor.
When a heart attack is so severe as to cause the heart to stop beating, it is called a cardiac arrest. Clearly, not all heart attacks result in cardiac arrest. Nor are all cardiac arrests the result of cardiac episodes. You can experience a cardiac arrest from huffing paint, getting shot, having a toaster fall in your hot tub, the coyote dropping an anvil on you, if you freeze while chasing your kid through a hedge-maze with an axe, or if you experience any trauma wherein you lose the majority of your blood. Anything that kills you will result in cardiac arrest.
The point of a “Getting It Right” article is to show you how to add some realism to your writing. Part of that entails showing you what it looks like when people get it wrong. I am sure you have read or seen medical dramas wherein someone who experiences a cardiac arrest undergoes a brief bout of CPR by the protagonist and then sits up and says, “Wow. That was close. Thanks.” Or, a patient who receives one or two shocks with the paddles (this device is called a defibrillator) who then regains consciousness and feels just great.
That stuff just does not happen. The object of CPR is not actually to restart the heart, though that sometimes happens. The purpose is to prevent death of brain tissue by forcing blood through the system, operating the heart manually, since it is not beating on its own. If a patient requires CPR, even if their heart rhythm is restored, they will likely not regain consciousness for some time. They are also at severe risk for relapse into cardiac arrest since the underlying cause of the arrest has not yet been treated.
The same is true of defibrillation. A patient who has been defibrillated may have their heartbeat restored. Even so, they will usually remain unconscious. Often, multiple shocks are required, and in the vast majority of cases, defibrillation fails to restore a perfusing (adequate to oxygenate tissue) rhythm to the heart. In those few instances when it does work, the patient will be at extreme risk until the underlying causes of the arrest are attended to.
A successful resuscitation requires an awful lot of things to go right. They usually don’t. When it happens, it incorporates not only early chest compression and defibrillation, but endotracheal intubation (a tube inserted down the trachea for the delivery of oxygen by a ventilator or handheld resuscitation device), vigorous oxygenation, an intravenous line and a lot of pharmaceuticals.
It’s not the sort of thing you can MacGuyver. If your character hooks somebody up to a pair of jumper cables in an attempt to improvise defibrillation, the victim will most likely end up on the crispy end of done.
If you have a character experiencing a heart attack, take some time to make the details convincing. Remember, a lot of people in medicine read. They need something to do while they are waiting to hear back from your insurance carrier.