Christmas has been and gone. It is the day after Boxing Day, and I have been feeling a little bombarded by Christmas this year. I’ve tried to steer clear of Facebook, as I’ve grown tired of the endless stream of sparkly, twinkly pictures, Christmas-themed status updates, Christmas memes, pictures of Christmas presents, parties, alcohol and food.
As everyone is enjoying some time off work for Christmas, I began to contemplate what I would be doing had I not resigned from my (paid) job. You see, before I quit my job to stay at home, look after the kids and mess around on the internet, I used to be a cardiac nurse. I worked as a clinical nurse specialist in cardiac rehabilitation which, in a nutshell, was a department dedicated to caring for the recovery of people who had suffered heart attacks. There were other heart conditions that we dealt with that may or may not have been as a direct result of heart disease or heart attack, but heart attacks and their subsequent treatment formed a large part of our work.
Had I still been in my job, this time of year would have been a very busy time in the office for me. This is because there is a phenomenon at this time of year (Christmas) where there is a marked increase in people presenting with heart attacks.
Sometimes known as the ‘Merry Christmas coronary’ (medical humour is dark), it is largely unknown why this happens at this time of year. There are numerous medical articles written about this on the internet if you are interested enough in the subject to carry out your own research, but I’m not going to bore you with the medical technicalities.
What I do want to tell you about is the importance of looking out for your loved ones at this time of year, focusing particularly on knowing what to look out for and do in the event of someone having a heart attack.
What is a Heart Attack?
Heart attacks are caused by heart disease, also known as coronary artery disease or coronary heart disease. This is where the arteries in the heart become narrower over a period of time. This narrowing is caused by fatty deposits building up inside the walls of the arteries.
If a piece of the fatty deposit breaks off inside the narrow arteries, it can cause a total blockage. Blood is now unable to pass the blockage in the artery. Blood carries oxygen around the body, but blood cannot travel beyond the blockage, so some of the heart muscle becomes starved of oxygen. This is a heart attack. If this happens, it is an emergency and must be treated immediately.
What are the symptoms?
In my experience, people report a variety of symptoms during their heart attacks. The most common sign of a heart attack is chest pain, just slightly left of the centre of the chest. This pain may radiate to other parts of the body, such as the left arm, jaw or back. For some people the pain is excruciating, where other people can tolerate the pain better. Some people describe the sensation as more of a tightness or crushing of the chest. Breathlessness is usually present. Other symptoms may include sweating, nausea and vomiting, or a sudden feeling of general unwellness.
What should I do?
If you believe that you or a loved one is having a heart attack, it is vitally important the person stops what they are doing immediately and rest. An ambulance should also be called via 999, right away. In my previous job I came across many people who travelled into hospital in the car, believing that it would be quicker, or that they were making a fuss by calling an ambulance.
Never do this.
If a heart attack is happening, a person needs to stop what they are doing, as any activity at all can put unnecessary stress on the starving heart muscle, potentially causing further damage or even cardiac arrest. Yes, just the act of getting up and slowly walking to the car, and from the car to the A&E department could cause this type of harm during a heart attack.
If you inform the operator on the phone that the patient is experiencing chest pain, and you believe that they are having a heart attack, the paramedics are obliged to prioritise you. You will not have to wait long. In fact, I believe that they should be with you in no longer than 8 minutes. Once they arrive, they are able to begin treating you, which wouldn’t happen if you travel in the car. They can administer oxygen, pain relief and anticoagulation medications, as well as make a diagnosis en route. They can radio ahead to the hospital so that the teams in the cardiac departments are prepared to receive the patient for appropriate treatment. Paramedics also have the means to resuscitate a patient should they go into cardiac arrest.
So always call an ambulance!
Here is a shocking, but spot-on video produced by the British Heart Foundation, which I recommend you watch. It gives a graphic account of the symptoms experienced in a heart attack, but hits home perfectly the importance of getting immediate treatment.
That video urges people to not delay in getting help. One of the consequences of leaving it too late is causing further damage to the already damaged heart muscle. The other consequence is cardiac arrest.
Cardiac arrest is when the heart fails to pump any blood around the body at all. A person in cardiac arrest is unconscious and does not make normal breathing sounds. They do not respond. Cardiac arrest is also a medical emergency and requires immediate treatment should it happen. Cardiac arrest becomes fatal within minutes if resuscitation is not attempted, so I just wanted to take the opportunity to share with you this fantastic video that the British Heart Foundation produced a few years ago, showing you what to do if you encounter somebody in cardiac arrest.
It isn’t complicated, but I understand it is incredibly daunting if you are faced with having to do it. Performing resuscitation is brutal. As Vinnie said, it is better to crack a rib than to kick the bucket. This is true. You need to push really hard, and really fast on the chest, particularly if you have a huge fella in front of you.
I would also just like to point out that this video only applies to resuscitating an adult. Resuscitating a child or baby requires different techniques. It is therefore worth taking a first aid course if you get the opportunity. I do believe that it should be taught in schools, as you can never predict when you will have to use these skills, which could mean the difference between life and death.
In the meantime, I hope that I haven’t put too much of a dampener on your festivities. Health is something that we all have a tendency to take for granted, until something forces us to sit up and take action.
If you’d like to find out more about risk factors for heart disease, or donate to the British Heart Foundation, have a look at their fantastic website: https://www.bhf.org.uk/
And please do have a happy and healthy New Year!