Cardiac arrest vs. heart attack: Why fast response is important for each

6abc Digital Staff Image
Tuesday, January 17, 2023
Cardiac arrest vs. heart attack: fast response is important for each
Many health experts believe the nationally televised rescue of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin could save other lives in the future.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Few people have ever witnessed someone go into cardiac arrest - or a medical team making a picture-perfect life-saving response.

Many health experts believe the nationally televised rescue of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin could save other lives in the future.

Temple Health cardiologists Dr. Eman Hamad and Isaac Whitman say when Hamlin's heart suddenly stopped, the odds were against him.

"There's no blood supply to any of the organs. The patient stops breathing, everything stops," says Dr. Hamad, a specialist in heart failure.

"Every moment of lost blood supply is a lost brain cell, a lost heart cell, a lost kidney cell," adds Dr. Whitman, a cardiac electrophysiologist - specialist in the heart's electrical system.

Cardiac arrest is very different from the more common heart attack.

Dr. Whitman spells it out.

"At its core, it (cardiac arrest) is an electrical problem," notes Dr. Whitman. "But a heart attack is related to a plumbing problem.

Dr. Hamad says a heart attack occurs when an artery becomes blocked, cutting off blood to part of the heart muscle.

The damage is much more localized, and people usually feel symptoms.

"They'll feel chest pain or shortness of breath, sometimes they'll feel dizziness," says Dr. Hamad.

Dr. Whitman notes that young athletes almost never have a heart attack, because their arteries aren't compromised by diabetes or high blood pressure.

"You can have perfect plumbing in your home, but still have an electrical problem. A young athlete might have perfect plumbing around his heart, but still develop or have an electrical problem," he says.

Cardiac arrest in young athletes is rare - a 2018 study found just under seven deaths per 100,000 teen athletes a year - less than half a per cent.

There are three main causes: structural heart problems like thickened walls or arteries in the wrong places, hereditary rhythm abnormalities, and Commotio cordis - blunt impact to the chest at just the wrong moment, disrupting the heartbeat.

The doctors say the immediate CPR restored Hamlin's heartbeat, while the AED restored the rhythm, enabling his amazing recovery.

And Hamlin is living proof why everyone should know CPR.

"He survived because of the rapid action," says Dr. Hamad. "We say time is muscle."

"You don't have to be an expert. You just have to be available and willing," says Dr. Whitman.

You can learn CPR in classes or even online.

And citizens who use it in an emergency are legally protected in virtually every state by Good Samaritan laws.