Q: What should I do if I witness someone having a heart attack?
A: Calling 911 for an ambulance is the first thing to do if you witness someone having a heart attack. Don’t even consider taking the person to the emergency room yourself unless you are in the middle of nowhere and that is your only option. The modern, well-equipped ambulance is like having the emergency room brought to your doorstep, and the person will get faster care than if you were to drive to the ER yourself and have to go through admissions paperwork.
Not surprisingly, many people lose their cool when reporting an emergency to 911.Try to remain calm and be sure to tell the operator exactly where you are. Don’t hang up if you get a recording. Stay on the line and your call will be answered in order. If you hang up, your call will be delayed because you will be placed behind other callers. If you are calling from a cell phone, be sure to provide the cell phone number to the operator (in case you get cut off) and then give your exact location or the nearest landmark if you don’t know exactly where you are. With the right information, the operator will be able to transfer you to the right call center.
Once you’ve called 911, loosen the person’s clothes to make breathing easier. Continue to try to communicate calmly with the person, even though you may be nervous and upset. You don’t want to add to the victim's anxiety and cause them to produce more adrenalin, which can be harmful in this situation. If you have one on hand, give the person one 325 milligram (preferably uncoated) aspirin to chew and swallow.
An aspirin can help break up the blood clot that is causing the heart attack. (Don’t give the person aspirin if you think they may be having a stroke.) Or, if you know the person has been prescribed nitroglycerin in the past for heart disease and has the medication with them, you can give a dose (don’t give the person someone else’s nitro, however).
You won’t need to do cardiac pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) unless the heart attack victim goes into cardiac arrest, which means they are unconscious and have stopped breathing.
If this happens, CPR will keep the blood circulating while you wait for the ambulance or for someone to get a defibrillator. The American Heart Association now recommends hands-only CPR instead of the traditional combination of chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth breathing. (It’s worth taking an American Red Cross class to get a refresher, if you don’t know this new method.)
The bottom line: Call 911 fast. It’s this quick action that saves lives.
Last Updated: 04/20/2009
Arthur Agatston, MD, is a practicing cardiologist and an associate professor of medicine at the University Of Miami Miller School Of Medicine.