What would you do if someone you were with was having a heart attack? Would you know how to help them?

I will never forget the first two times I saw someone having a heart attack. Both incidences happened over twenty years ago. The first person was one of my teachers. He was in is mid-thirties. I was in my first semester of nursing school and the class was “Transcultural Nursing.” It was a beautiful day outside. As my teacher began his lecture I noticed he seemed a little confused, almost as if he had something else on his mind. After about fifteen minutes he started to sweat, not a lot but just enough to have to pat his face dry a few times. I started thinking something might be wrong so I looked around the room to see if any of the other students had the same thoughts as mine. Sadly enough, nobody else did so I kept my feelings to myself. When class was over, I asked if everything was ok and my teacher said yes. As uncomfortable as I was, I left it at that. The next morning we were told he had a heart attack and died. I was devastated.

The next heart attack victim was my father. My father and stepmother were visiting me and my sisters in New York. We were at the diner eating dinner. As we were about to order, my father said he wasn’t that hungry and only ordered soup. I was a little surprised because my father always eats at least a two course meal every night! He also seemed quieter than usual. When I asked if there was anything wrong he said he was just tired. When his soup came out he didn’t eat that much. He sat and tried to smile a few times but I knew something was off. Finally he said he was going to rest in the car until we were done eating. I asked again if he was ok and he said, “I am tired”. My gut was telling me something is wrong so I waited five minutes and went out to check on him. I knocked on the passenger door and he looked up at me with tears in his eyes and grabbed his chest. About ten minutes later we were at the emergency room and was told he was having a heart attack. Later on that evening I asked him why he didn’t say anything in the diner and he said he didn’t want to worry us or make a scene.

As a nurse, I have seen and taken care of many patients that have had heart attacks. The most important thing I learned is that “time is of the essence”. Knowing the signs of a heart attack and calling 9-1-1 as soon as possible can save someone’s life.

Some of the major signs and symptoms of a heart attack are:

  1. Chest pain or discomfort
  2. Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, back, arms, shoulders, or stomach
  3. Feeling weak, light-headed, or faint
  4. Shortness of breath, which can occur with or without chest discomfort.

Other signs or symptoms that a person may have during a heart attack are:

  1. Nausea, feeling sick to your stomach, or vomiting
  2. Breaking out in a cold sweat
  3. Lightheadedness

What can you do to reduce your risk of having a heart attack?

  • Don’t smoke. Smoking is a major cause of heart disease. Avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.
  • Lower your blood pressure. High blood pressure, or hypertension, greatly increases your risk of heart disease and heart attack. Be sure to include daily physical activity and a heart-healthy diet in your life. Your doctor may also prescribe medications to help.
  • Control your diabetes. Diabetes is a major risk factor for heart disease. Work with your doctor to control your blood sugar levels if you are at risk for diabetes.
  • Improve your cholesterol if your levels are high. High levels of LDL/bad cholesterol increase your risk of heart disease. High levels of HDL/good cholesterol protect against heart disease. High levels of total cholesterol also increase your risk of heart disease. Get your cholesterol checked annually. Your cholesterol levels can improve with exercise and a healthy diet low in unhealthy fats and alcohol. Your doctor can also prescribe medications.
  •  Reduce stress. Practice a relaxation technique such as yoga or meditation, and take time out every day for a few quiet minutes to unwind and appreciate life.
  • Manage anger. Seek ways to control feelings of anger and hostility; these emotions may add to heart attack risk.
  • Ask about aspirin. Talk with your doctor about taking an aspirin daily. Studies have shown that this regimen significantly reduces the risk of heart attack in some people.

Educating yourself on these signs and symptoms just might save someone’s life one day!