There’s a grim statistic in my story today about a debate over CPR in San Diego: Only about 6.5 percent of people who suffer from cardiac arrest outside the hospital survive. And the rate hasn’t changed much in decades.

What gives? After all, many people have learned CPR, and automatic defibrillator machines are in public places like airports and shopping malls.

Dr. Jerry Glassman, a cardiologist at Scripps Mercy Hospital, said it seems have a lot to do with the kind of people who suffer from cardiac arrest these days.

Compared to the past, they may be older and sicker since medicine is helping us live longer, he said. “We’re able to do such a good job in helping people survive their initial heart attack, cancer or Parkinson’s, that they’re going back and living their lives,” he said. “But when they get sick (again), their prognosis is altered.”

(If you’re thinking, “Wait, aren’t heart attacks and cardiac arrest the same thing?” join the club. In fact, they’re different. A heart attack occurs when a blood vessel gets clogged and can’t provide oxygen to part of the heart; cardiac arrest occurs when the heart stops beating properly and begins bouncing around uncontrollably before it stops beating for good. A heart attack can lead to cardiac arrest.)

In the best cases, however, the survival rate can jump as high as 50-70 percent, said Dr. Mohamud Daya, an emergency medicine specialist at Oregon Health & Science University. He’s referring to scenarios in which a bystander performs CPR on a person in cardiac arrest before their heart stops, and paramedics arrive quickly.

But in many cases, people suffer from cardiac arrest alone, Daya said.

Despite the “dismal” survival rate, it’s still crucial to start CPR immediately on someone who’s suffered from cardiac arrest and shock the person with a defibrillator as soon as possible, said Dr. John W. Blenko, an anesthesiologist at the University of Maryland.

Ideally, the electric shock essentially reboots the heart to a normal rhythm. (You’ve seen doctors try this on television when they grab defibrillator paddles in the E.R. and yell “Clear!” before zapping a patient.)

CPR can keep a patient’s blood moving before defibrillation is attempted. If you’ve learned CPR in the past, however, you may be out of date. The American Heart Association updated its CPR guidelines in 2005 to put more emphasis on chest compressions instead of breathing, and new guidelines expected next year may go even further in that direction.

Some responders even perform CPR without providing breaths to the victim. This is all right because the key is keeping the heart beating, and the body has enough oxygen in it to last for five minutes without help, Blenko said.

Even if you’ve had CPR training recently, Blenko recommends that you go back for more since people often forget what they’ve learned after 4-6 months.

Blenko has one last bit of advice: Don’t be hesitant about performing CPR on a cardiac-arrest victim. You shouldn’t worry that you might kill the person, he said.

“He’s already dead. Anything you can do is better than nothing.”


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