When I had a cardiac arrest, I didn’t initially understand what it was and the difference between it and a heart attack. Over the years, I’ve consulted with many medical professionals, and it still surprises me when they refer to my event as a heart attack, especially when they should know better (I didn’t have a heart attack). A recent post in the group on this subject revealed my experience wasn’t isolated, so I put a few thoughts down in an open letter…
Dear Medical Professionals,
Today, I want to shed light on a crucial and often overlooked topic: the aftermath of surviving a cardiac arrest. As healthcare providers, it is essential for all medical professionals, even those who rarely encounter cardiac arrest survivors, to understand its unique impact on individuals and their loved ones. With this letter, I aim to dispel common myths, clarify the distinction between a cardiac arrest and a heart attack, and emphasise the profound effects it can have on partners, co-survivors, and the survivors themselves.
Understanding the Difference
Let us begin by clarifying the distinction between a cardiac arrest and a heart attack. A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart muscle is blocked, often due to a clot in a coronary artery. It typically causes chest pain or discomfort and can permanently damage the heart muscle. On the other hand, a cardiac arrest is a sudden cessation of the heart’s function, resulting in the individual collapsing and becoming unresponsive. It is caused by an electrical malfunction within the heart, disrupting its ability to pump blood effectively. Both are serious medical emergencies, but a cardiac arrest requires immediate intervention, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and defibrillation. Of course, with heart attacks being the #1 cause of cardiac arrests, there are plenty who have a foot in both camps, but remember that there are also plenty who aren’t.
One common misconception is that surviving a cardiac arrest is equivalent to a full recovery. While resuscitation efforts can bring someone back from the brink of death, the following journey is often far from straightforward. Cardiac arrest survivors often face many physical, emotional, and cognitive challenges that require ongoing medical attention and support. It is crucial for medical professionals to recognise that the needs of survivors extend beyond the immediate resuscitation phase.
The physical toll of a cardiac arrest can be extensive. The lack of oxygen to the brain during the arrest can lead to brain injury, resulting in memory problems, difficulties with concentration, and fatigue. Survivors often face physical challenges due to the prolonged lack of circulation, which may require specialised rehabilitation and the implementation of adaptive strategies. These physical challenges necessitate comprehensive medical care and support to optimise the survivor’s recovery.
Emotional and Psychological Struggles
Surviving a cardiac arrest can be a deeply traumatic experience, not only for the survivors but also for their loved ones. Many individuals suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and a pervasive fear of recurrence. The emotional and psychological impact of such an event should not be underestimated. Medical professionals should provide compassionate care and recognise the need for psychological support, both for the survivor and their family members who may be grappling with their own emotional challenges in the aftermath of the cardiac arrest.
Impact on Partners and Co-Survivors
Cardiac arrest affects the survivor and significantly impacts their partners, family members, and others who helped or witnessed the life-threatening event. The experience of witnessing someone (especially a loved one) go through such a traumatic event can be emotionally distressing, leading to feelings of helplessness, anxiety, and grief. It is crucial for medical professionals to recognise and address the needs of partners and co-survivors, offering appropriate support and resources to help them cope with the aftermath.
Surviving a cardiac arrest is a remarkable feat, but it marks the beginning of a challenging and complex journey for the survivor and their support network. As those involved with cardiac arrest survivors, you must appreciate the distinctive impact of cardiac arrest on individuals and their loved ones.
By expanding your knowledge and awareness of the long-term effects of cardiac arrest, we can better address the needs of survivors. It is crucial for medical professionals to adopt a holistic approach, considering not only the physical aspects but also the emotional and psychological well-being of the survivors and their support systems. Here are some practical steps that medical professionals can take:
- Comprehensive Follow-up Care: Implement a structured follow-up care plan for cardiac arrest survivors, including regular check-ups to assess their physical recovery, evaluate cognitive or memory difficulties, and address psychological concerns. This approach ensures ongoing monitoring and intervention when necessary.
- Collaborative Care: Foster a multidisciplinary approach involving various healthcare professionals such as cardiologists, neurologists, psychologists, and rehabilitation specialists to provide comprehensive care. This collaborative effort ensures survivors receive tailored treatment plans addressing their unique needs.
- Education and Awareness: Educate healthcare professionals about the distinctive impact of cardiac arrest on survivors and their loved ones. This includes raising awareness about survivors’ physical, emotional, and cognitive challenges and providing guidance on available resources and support networks.
- Psychological Support: Recognise the importance of psychological support for survivors and their family members. Offer counselling services, support groups, and access to mental health professionals who can assist in managing anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptoms.
- Rehabilitation and Adaptation: Provide access to specialised rehabilitation services to help survivors regain physical function and adapt to any long-term disabilities. Occupational therapy, physical therapy, and cognitive rehabilitation can significantly improve their quality of life and independence.
- Support for Co-survivors: Acknowledge and address the emotional toll experienced by partners, family members, and others who witnessed the cardiac arrest. Offer resources and counselling to help them cope with the trauma and support the survivor’s recovery.
As medical professionals, it is crucial to recognise that surviving a cardiac arrest is just the beginning of a challenging journey for individuals and their support network. By understanding the unique impact of cardiac arrest, dispelling common myths, and providing comprehensive care that addresses the physical, emotional, and psychological aspects of recovery, you can make a significant difference in the lives of survivors and their loved ones. Together, let us strive to ensure that every cardiac arrest survivor receives the support, understanding, and compassionate care they need to rebuild their lives.
Remember, knowing that a patient had a cardiac arrest is essential to providing them with the best possible care.
Those affected by a cardiac arrest
After our first meet-up in February 2015, I realised I was not alone. It was the first time since my cardiac arrest the previous year that I had spoken face-to-face with someone who had experienced what I had. This was also true for my wife, who also happened to be my lifesaver. From that meet-up, the idea of SCA UK was born. Since then, we have achieved a considerable amount, primarily providing information, resources and support to others in a similar situation but also raising the profile of survivorship and the need for better post-discharge care. We are starting to get traction in this, and with the formation of the charity, I genuinely believe we have a bright future ahead and will make a significant difference in the lives of many who join our ranks.