Surviving a Heart Attack

Your best weapon

How do you survive a heart attack? Fast action is your best weapon against a heart attack. Why? Because clot-busting drugs and other artery-opening treatments can stop a heart attack in its tracks. They can prevent or limit damage to the heart–but they need to be given immediately after symptoms begin. The sooner they are started, the more good they will do–and the greater the chances are for survival and a full recovery. To be most effective, they need to be given ideally within one hour of the start of heart attack symptoms.

Uncertainty is normal

Expectations often don't match reality when it comes to heart attack. People expect a heart attack to happen as it does in the movies, where someone clutches his or her chest in pain and falls over. Because of this expectation, people often are not sure if they're having a heart attack. As a result, people often take a wait-and-see approach instead of seeking care at once. This even happens to people who have already had a heart attack. They may not recognize the symptoms, because their next heart attack can have entirely different symptoms.

Delay can be deadly

Most persons having a heart attack wait too long to seek medical help — and that can be a fatal mistake. Patient delay–rather than transport or hospital delay — is the biggest cause of not getting rapid care for heart attacks.

People often take a wait-and-see approach, delaying because they:

  • Do not understand the symptoms of a heart attack and think that what they are feeling is due to something else.
  • Are afraid or unwilling to admit that their symptoms could be serious.
  • Are embarrassed about "causing a scene," or going to the hospital and finding out it is a false alarm.
  • Do not understand the importance of getting to the hospital right away.

Some patients are more likely than others to delay. For instance, women, older persons, and minorities are more likely to delay getting help.

As a result, most heart attack victims wait two hours or more after their symptoms begin before they seek medical help. This delay can result in death or permanent heart damage — damage that can greatly reduce the ability to do everyday activities.

Call 911

The first step to take when a heart attack happens is to call 911. Call whether you're sure you're having a heart attack or not.

Anyone showing heart attack warning signs needs to receive medical treatment right away. Don't wait more than a few minutes—five minutes at most — to call 911.

Calling 911 for an ambulance is the best way to get to the hospital because:

  • Emergency medical personnel (also called EMS, for emergency medical services) can begin treatment immediately — even before arrival at the hospital.
  • The heart may stop beating during a heart attack. This is called sudden cardiac arrest. Emergency personnel have the equipment needed to start the heart beating again.
  • Heart attack patients who arrive by ambulance tend to receive faster treatment on their arrival at the hospital.

If for some reason, you are having heart attack symptoms and cannot call 911, have someone else drive you at once to the hospital. Never drive yourself to the hospital, unless you absolutely have no other choice.

Emergency medical personnel

Calling 911 is like bringing a hospital emergency department to your door. Why?

  • Emergency medical personnel can take vital signs, determine your medical condition, and if needed give added medical care.
  • In many places, emergency medical personnel are linked to hospitals and doctors, so they can relay your vital signs and electrocardiogram to the emergency department before you arrive. This way, you receive immediate continued treatment by emergency department personnel once you reach the hospital.
  • Emergency medical personnel can give a variety of treatments and medications at the scene. Emergency medical personnel carry drugs and equipment that can help your medical condition, including oxygen, heart medications (such as nitroglycerin), pain relief treatments (such as morphine), and defibrillators (equipment that restarts the heart if it stops beating).

Plan ahead

Make a plan now for what you would do if a heart attack should happen. Doing so will save time and could help save a life.

To plan ahead:

  • Learn the heart attack warning signs.
  • Think through what you would do if you had heart attack symptoms. Decide what you would do if it happened while you were at home, in the middle of the night, at work, or at any other place or in any other situation that might need advance planning.
  • Decide who would care for any dependents in an emergency. Emergency medical personnel will generally contact a friend or relative (or the police department, if necessary) to make emergency arrangements for your dependents.
  • Talk with your family and friends about the heart attack warning signs and the importance of acting fast by calling 911 after a few minutes — five at the most–if those signs persist. Explain the benefits of calling 911, instead of getting to the hospital by car.
  • Talk to your health care provider about your heart attack risk and what you can do to reduce it. (Rate your chances of having a heart attack.)
  • Talk to your doctor about what you should do if you experience any heart attack symptoms.
  • Gather important information to take along with you to the hospital. Do this by preparing a heart attack survival plan. Fill in the form, print it out, and keep copies in handy places, such as your wallet or purse.
  • If you are concerned about your insurance coverage, call your insurance company and check on your benefits. Most insurance companies cover emergency care for a possible heart attack.


Treatment & Care

Lee Memorial Health System offers many surgical and medical procedures
for heart and vascular conditions.

Learn More

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