What are the differences between a heart attack vs cardiac arrest – do you know? I didn’t.
The hardest question that everyone always asks is how my husband died. The short answer is: his heart stopped working. The longer answer is: we’re not quite sure what happened, but all signs lead me to believe that he had a cardiac arrest (which is not the same thing as a heart attack).
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What Are The Differences?
Whenever there’s talk of death from heart problems, the default tends to assume it was a heart attack. The more I think about it, the more I am certain that my husband didn’t die from a heart attack, but from sudden cardiac arrest or SCA. In reality, a heart attack vs cardiac arrest are very different things.
A heart attack, or what doctors call a myocardial infarction or MI, is when there is damage to the heart caused by inadequate blood flow. Usually, it’s because one of the heart’s arteries has a blockage, typically from cholesterol – that’s why your doctor monitors your cholesterol levels. The blood clot is like a stopper, preventing the required blood flow to your heart. It’s a plumbing problem.
A cardiac arrest is an electrical problem. It happens when the heart’s electrical system malfunctions, causing it to beat rapidly and chaotically. Sometimes it’s even an instant stop. Once the heart stops beating, the blood flow needed to bring oxygen to the main organs, especially the brain, shuts down the system within seconds.
You can survive a heart attack; it is unlikely you will survive a cardiac arrest. The difference being that a heart attack is a slow (though agonizing) process, while a cardiac arrest is sudden. Unless a defibrillator is used within minutes of an arrest, the lack of oxygen to the brain kills it within seconds.
The signs were there, if I only knew how to read them. He was complaining of being out of breath, and that his heart was racing super fast after taking his prescribed medication in the morning for some weeks. He was also very tired a lot, like could sleep the day through if he could. Really though, would that trigger a warning for you? Maybe now it would.
Why The Facts Matter
95% of all people who suffer from SCA die. Only intervention within the first ten minutes could have possibly made a difference. And those that do survive, almost 40% may experience significant physical or cognitive impairment after sudden cardiac arrest.
Why is this important information to know? Because if you are in a similar situation that I was, it will help make a difficult decision easier. Let me provide context: When I found him, he would have been without oxygen to the brain for at least and hour. Defibrillation, when used with CPR, can improve cardiac arrest survival rates to more than 50% but only if delivered in the first few minutes. For every one minute delay in defibrillation, the survival rate of a cardiac arrest victim decreases by 10%. My husband was adamant that if he was ever in a position where he was only alive because of hospital machines, I was to unplug him. For the two nights and two days that I was in the hospital with him, not knowing if he was brain dead or not was agonizing. I was wrestling with either keeping him hooked up to the breathing machine with hope that he’d recover, or whether his soul was already gone and I was violating his primal wish. If I had know the fact that he was likely brain dead almost two days before the brain scan proved it, I would have been able to make this mortal decision earlier, and much easier. If I was aware that he had suffered a cardiac arrest vs a heart attack, it would have taken a lot of weight of responsibility off of my conscience.
Realizing what probably took him means that all guilt is lifted, because unless I was there the moment it happened it wouldn’t have made a difference. But I wasn’t. The night ran as it was supposed to. And it wasn’t his fault, or mine.
This is why it is important for you to be aware of the differences in case you ever, gods forbid, you are in a similar situation. At least now you have a better set of tools rely upon, if needed.
As a only parent to two kids, who is also a widow, I know how you need resources.
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