You may have heard the terms “heart attack” and “cardiac arrest” and thought that they were one and the same. While both conditions are serious and need urgent medical attention, understanding the differences between a heart attack and a cardiac arrest could be the difference between life and death.

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack, medically known as a myocardial infarction, is typically due to an artery ‘plumbing’ problem. This blockage is often caused by a build-up of plaque (a mix of fat, cholesterol, and other substances) in the coronary arteries. When this plaque ruptures, it can form a blood clot that obstructs blood flow. Without enough oxygenated blood, the heart muscle begins to die.

Key symptoms of a heart attack to look for:

  • Chest pain or discomfort, often described as pressure, squeezing, or fullness.
  • Pain or discomfort in other areas of the upper body, such as the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Cold sweat.
  • Nausea or lightheadedness.

Heart attacks can develop slowly with mild pain or discomfort, or they can strike suddenly with intense pain. They require immediate medical attention, and early intervention can significantly reduce heart damage and improve outcomes.

What is a cardiac arrest?

Cardiac arrest is a sudden loss of heart function, breathing, and consciousness. It’s often caused by an electrical disturbance in the heart that disrupts its pumping action and stops blood flow to the rest of the body. Unlike a heart attack, which is a circulation (plumbing) problem, cardiac arrest is an electrical problem. Importantly, a heart attack can be lethal if the heart muscle becomes electrically unstable evolving into a cardiac arrest.

Key symptoms of a cardiac arrest to look for:

  • Sudden collapse.
  • No pulse.
  • No breathing.
  • Loss of consciousness.

A cardiac arrest can occur suddenly and without warning, usually leading to death if not treated within minutes. Immediate action with CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and the use of a defibrillator can be life-saving.

How to respond to a heart attack or cardiac arrest

Quick and appropriate action can save lives and reduce the long-term impact on health, so being aware of the difference in these conditions is vital.

In the event of a suspected heart attack:

  • Call emergency services immediately.
  • Chew and swallow an aspirin (unless allergic or advised against it by your doctor) to help prevent further blood clotting.
  • Stay calm and rest until help arrives to avoid unnecessary strain on the heart.

If you have witnessed someone in suspected cardiac arrest:

  • Call emergency services immediately.
  • Start CPR with firm chest compressions in the middle of the breastbone (100 per minute) and follow the dispatcher’s instructions until help arrives.
  • Use an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) if one is available.

Case Study: Josh’s Story

Pictured: Josh and his family today

In 2020, Josh’s life took an unexpected turn. A 45-year-old man with a loving wife and three young children, Josh was healthy, a non-smoker, maintained a good weight and enjoyed regular exercise. However, one morning, his routine run came close to ending in tragedy.

On the 6th of January, at around 5:30 am, Josh returned home from his usual neighbourhood run in Bateau Bay. As he entered the garage where his wife was working out, he mentioned that his run felt unusually tough. Moments later, he collapsed and went into cardiac arrest.

Josh’s wife quickly sprang into action. She immediately began CPR while contacting emergency services. The ambulance arrived within seven minutes — an impressive response time that played a crucial role in Josh’s survival. The paramedics administered a shock with a defibrillator, and after close to 11 minutes without a heartbeat, Josh’s heart started beating again. He was rushed to the emergency room, placed in an induced coma, and underwent intervention to place a stent in a blocked artery with the on-call cardiologist Dr Tony Kull.

The days following were incredibly stressful for Josh’s family. His children, all under six years old, were too young to comprehend the gravity of the situation. His wife, though outwardly composed for the children’s sake, endured immense worry and strain.

Josh received care and support from A/Prof Tom Ford during this critical time and in the weeks that followed. His dedication and expertise were evident as he treated Josh and supported his family through the ordeal.

Remarkably, Josh emerged from his coma without any complications or long-term effects. His story is a testament to the importance of immediate CPR and defibrillation during cardiac arrest. Josh acknowledges that his survival is due to his wife’s quick thinking and the rapid response of the paramedics.

After several weeks of rehabilitation, Josh’s life returned to normal. He now cherishes every moment with his family and friends, appreciating the preciousness of life. Josh encourages everyone to express their love and gratitude to their loved ones regularly, as we can never predict what lies ahead.

Josh’s story is a powerful reminder of the importance of immediate action in the event of a cardiac arrest and the profound impact that a dedicated healthcare professional can have on patient outcomes.

Paying it forward

Inspired by his experience, Josh has become an advocate for the availability of defibrillators in communities. With the support of The Community Defib Project and device supplied by  donation from Central Heart, Josh installed a defibrillator in Yulong Street, Bateau Bay. This device, located near popular local walking tracks and Bateau Bay Beach, is a vital resource for the community. Josh hopes it remains unused, but its presence provides peace of mind, knowing it could save lives.

“Thank you for your generous and thoughtful donation for our community defibrillator. It’s amazing to have a doctor who is so invested in their patients’ wellbeing and recovery. Thank you for being that person to us.” — Josh

Pictured: The community defibrillator in Yulong Street, Bateau Bay

Post-heart attack and cardiac arrest care with Central Heart

Caring for patients after a heart attack or cardiac arrest involves a comprehensive approach that includes medical assessment, lifestyle changes, and psychological support. At Central Heart, we evaluate patients with their families, considering ongoing symptoms and medications. Heart function is assessed, and future risks are evaluated using advanced imaging techniques such as cardiac echo and MRI to detect heart muscle scarring. This is crucial, as conditions like Josh’s demonstrate that heart disease can occur without standard modifiable risk factors (SMuRFS), underlining the need for further research.

Cardiac rehabilitation, led by specialist nurses, plays a vital role in patient recovery. This program educates patients on adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle, encompassing dietary adjustments, exercise, and stress management. It also supports patients in coping with the emotional and psychological impacts of a heart disease diagnosis, helping them return to a healthy, balanced life.

Contact Central Heart to find out how we can help

At Central Heart, your heart health is our priority. Our specialist cardiology practice on the Central Coast offers advanced diagnostics and minimally invasive treatments tailored to your needs.

Please get in touch with our dedicated team to explore your options.