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When the Heart Stops Beating
Date:1/5/2009

The two stories are illustrative of the problem of sudden cardiac arrest in several ways, said Dr. Fritz A. Ehlert, director of the electrophysiology fellowship at Columbia University.

First, sudden cardiac arrest has to be distinguished from a heart attack, in which heart muscle dies when its blood supply is cut off. "Not everyone who has a heart attack develops sudden cardiac arrest, which is a rhythm disturbance," Ehlert said.

And while the risk factors for heart attack are well-known and easily detected -- high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes -- sudden cardiac arrest is not as easily predicted. The risk is higher "for anyone why has had one in the past, who has a history of heart attack, who has heart failure, who has a family history of sudden cardiac arrest," Ehlert said.

Once it happens, seconds matter. "For every minute that goes by before therapy is initiated, survival decreases by 10 percent," Ehlert said. "The issue is always getting trained medical people to respond as quickly as possible."

The availability of external defibrillators is always a help, he said. Both Babcock and Stoltz now have implanted defibrillators, which deliver shocks automatically if the heart stops beating.

"It's in there, but you can't feel it," Babcock said.

More information

Causes, prevention and treatment of sudden cardiac arrest are described by the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.



SOURCES: Deanna Babcock, Raleigh, N.C.; Jim Stoltz, Flanders, N.J., Fritz A. Ehlert, M.D., associate clinical professor, medicine, and director, electrophysiology fellowship, Columbia University, New York City


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