If someone you love suddenly went into cardiac arrest and stopped breathing, would you know what to do? Many Americans die each year from sudden cardiac arrest, but with the right tools and citizen training, thousands could survive.

During sudden cardiac arrest, the heart muscle stops pumping and quivers, a condition called ventricular fibrillation. A small percentage of patients who suffer a sudden cardiac arrest outside of the hospital survive.

Lives Saved

While celebrating her 48th birthday, Julie Lycksell suddenly collapsed and stopped breathing. Her friend asked someone to call 911, while her husband and a restaurant patron started cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Within a minute or two, a policeman trained in using an automated external defibrillator (AED) arrived and administered life-saving pulses of electricity. Unlike most sudden cardiac arrest victims, Lycksell had no history of heart trouble, and doctors could not determine why she developed an abnormal heart rhythm.

"The doctor told me it was just a strange thing that happened to me," Lycksell says. "If the policeman hadn't had a defibrillator, I'd be dead."

Learning the Chain of Survival

Rapid initiation of the American Heart Association's chain of survival may save the lives of people who experience sudden cardiac arrest.

Here's what to do:

    
  • Recognize that there is an emergency. If the person is unresponsive, emergency care should be started.
  • Call for medical help or have someone else call.
  • If there is an AED available, get it (or have someone else get it) and follow the steps on the machine.
  • Start CPR by giving chest compressions. Push in the chest at least two inches at a fast rate of at least 100 compressions per minute.
  • If you are trained in CPR, after 30 compressions, open the person's airway and give two rescue breaths. Then, continue with the chest compressions. If you feel more comfortable, you can give the compressions without the breaths until the ambulance arrives.
  • Performing CPR

    The American Heart Association, American Red Cross, and other organizations conduct classes to teach citizens how to administer CPR. Researchers have found that young people and adults older than 60 were able to learn the life-saving skill online and then successfully perform CPR on a mannequin.

    Defibrillators: The Difference Between Life and Death

    Early defibrillation plays a key role in improving the odds someone will survive sudden cardiac arrest without brain damage. The American Heart Association's emergency care guidelines place a stronger emphasis on early defibrillation and improved access to AEDs. Heartsaver AED CPR classes include information about how to use the devices.

    Many studies have found that about half of those who suffer sudden cardiac arrest will survive when trained people administer CPR and AED CPR. Overall survival rates are improving as more and more communities increase their access to AEDs.

    AEDs are found in airports, shopping malls, casinos, community centers, and sports or medical facilities. AEDs can be somewhat costly and are available over the counter, without prescription. If you purchase an AED, be sure to get proper training on how to safely use it.