Life-Saving Tips: How to Respond to a Heart Attack or Stroke

Medical emergencies are an unfortunate and difficult part of human life. But our ability to respond quickly and effectively can help to save the lives of those around us.

Two of the most critical medical emergencies to recognize and respond to are heart attacks and strokes. These events can be life-threatening, and the way you respond can significantly impact the outcome. Understanding the signs and knowing what to do can save lives.

In this week’s Wellness Wednesday, we’ll guide you through the symptoms of heart attacks and strokes, and provide step-by-step instructions on how to respond effectively.

Recognizing a Heart Attack

According to the Mayo Clinic, a heart attack occurs when an artery that sends blood and oxygen to the heart is blocked. Fatty, cholesterol-containing deposits build up over time, forming plaques in the heart’s arteries. If a plaque ruptures, a blood clot can form. The clot can block arteries, causing a heart attack. During a heart attack, a lack of blood flow causes the tissue in the heart muscle to die.

Recognizing the symptoms of a heart attack early can make a huge difference. Here are the key signs to watch for:

  • Chest Pain or Discomfort: This is the most common symptom. It may feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain in the center or left side of the chest. It often lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back.

  • Upper Body Pain: Pain or discomfort can spread to the shoulders, arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach.

  • Shortness of Breath: This can occur with or without chest discomfort.

  • Other Symptoms: Cold sweat, nausea, lightheadedness, or feeling unusually tired.

How to Respond to a Heart Attack

If someone around you is showing symptoms that they are having a heart attack, the Mayo Clinic offers these tips to help:

  • Call 911 Immediately

    Don’t ignore the symptoms of a heart attack. Time is crucial. The faster medical help arrives, the better the chances of survival and reducing damage to the heart.

  • Take an Aspirin (if recommended)
    Aspirin helps prevent blood clotting. Taking aspirin during a heart attack may reduce heart damage. Don’t take an aspirin unless a healthcare professional says to do so. Don’t delay calling 911 to take an aspirin. Call for emergency help first.
  • Take nitroglycerin, if prescribed
    If you think you’re having a heart attack and you have a prescription for this medicine, take it as directed while waiting for emergency medical help.
  • Administer CPR if the person doesn’t have a pulse or isn’t breathing
    If you’re untrained in CPR, emergency dispatchers can guide you over the phone. If you’re trained in CPR and confident in your ability, start with 30 chest compressions before giving two rescue breaths.
  • Use an automated external defibrillator (AED)
    if one is available and the person is unconscious. The device delivers shocks to reset the heart rhythm. AEDs come with step-by-step voice instructions for their use. They’re programmed to allow a shock only when appropriate.

Recognizing a Stroke

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute defines a stroke as an event that occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked or there is sudden bleeding in the brain. There are two types of strokes. A stroke that occurs because blood flow to the brain is blocked is called an ischemic stroke. The brain cannot get oxygen and nutrients from the blood. Without oxygen and nutrients, brain cells begin to die within minutes. A stroke that occurs because of sudden bleeding in the brain is called a hemorrhagic stroke. The leaked blood results in pressure on brain cells, damaging them.

A stroke can cause lasting brain damage, long-term disability, or even death. Immediate action is critical. Remember the acronym F.A.S.T.:

  • Face Drooping: Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile.

  • Arm Weakness: Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?

  • Speech Difficulty: Is speech slurred, are they unable to speak, or are they hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence like, “The sky is blue.”

  • Time to Call 911: If the person shows any of these symptoms, even if they go away, call 911 and get them to the hospital immediately.

How to Respond to a Stroke

According to Dr. Sankar of NewYork-Presbyterian, “The death rate and level of disability resulting from strokes can be dramatically reduced by prompt medical care. The sooner treatment is started, the more likely there will be a good outcome.

Below is a list of Do’s and Don’ts if you see someone having a stroke:

  • DON’T drive to the hospital

    Call 9-1-1 immediately. Paramedics are faster and can recognize when someone is in trouble and needs emergency assistance.

  • DON’T give the person aspirin
    For many strokes, aspirin is good—but for many other strokes, aspirin will make things much, much worse. Leave it to medical personnel to decide what’s best.
  • DON’T give the person anything to eat or drink
    Stroke can cause difficulty with muscle control, including the ability to swallow.
  • DO write down the time
    This will greatly help the emergency team to act as efficiently as possible. Knowing when the symptoms started can help doctors determine the appropriate treatment. If you are not sure when the symptoms started, knowing when the person was last seen “normal” is helpful as well.
  • DO help the person lie down
    Keep stroke victims on their side with the head slightly elevated to promote blood flow.
  • DO loosen any restrictive clothing
    This helps the stroke victim breathe more easily. Avoid pulling or straining any weakened limbs.
  • DO check for breathing if the person is unconscious
    Check for pulse and breathing. If there is no pulse, begin CPR immediately.

Supporting Loved Ones After a Heart Attack or Stroke

After the immediate danger has passed, supporting a loved one’s recovery is crucial:

  • Follow Up Care: Ensure they attend all follow-up appointments and adhere to prescribed medications and lifestyle changes.

  • Emotional Support: A heart attack or stroke can be a traumatic experience. Offer emotional support and encourage them to seek counseling if needed.

  • Rehabilitation Programs: Participate in cardiac or stroke rehabilitation programs if recommended. These programs provide education, support, and supervised physical activity to aid recovery.

  • Lifestyle Adjustments: Help them make necessary lifestyle adjustments, such as healthy eating and regular physical activity. Join them in these changes to provide encouragement and support.

Knowing how to respond to a heart attack or stroke can be the difference between life and death. Quick, decisive action, coupled with a calm demeanor, can save lives and improve outcomes. Stay informed, stay prepared, and encourage those around you to do the same. Prevention is the best medicine, so take proactive steps to maintain a healthy lifestyle and manage risk factors. Together, we can create a safer, healthier community.

Remember, emergencies are unpredictable, but your response doesn’t have to be. Stay calm, act quickly, and prioritize getting professional medical help as soon as possible. Your actions could save a life.

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