Did you know that heart disease is Australia’s number one killer taking a precious life every 26 minutes? According to recent research conducted by St John Ambulance WA, cardiac arrest is a leading cause of death, with St John paramedics attending to 2,451 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests in 2016 alone.

So with the majority of cardiac arrests occurring outside of a hospital setting, learning how to restart a heart and save a life is a skill worth having. Early CPR and defibrillation can have a dramatic impact on survivability and can be the difference between life and death for someone experiencing a cardiac arrest.

Read on to find out how to detect a cardiac arrest and the simple steps you can take before the ambulance arrives.

What is a cardiac arrest?

A cardiac arrest is an electrical malfunction where the heart’s rhythm is disrupted and it stops pumping blood around your body. As a result, your brain, lungs and vital organs are quickly starved of oxygen, you lose consciousness and stop breathing.

It only takes three minutes for brain damage to set in and within ten minutes, the person has actually died – so you need to act fast. In most cases, the ambulance won’t make it in time and therefore, civilians need to know what to in this life or death situation to increase the chance of survival.

How to detect a cardiac arrest

A cardiac arrest can be sudden and unexpected. Some warning signs to look for if you suspect someone is in cardiac arrest include:

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

Sometimes other signs and symptoms precede a cardiac arrest including fatigue, fainting, blackouts, dizziness, chest pain, shortness of breath, weakness, palpitations or vomiting. If someone is experiencing any of these episodes frequently, they are encouraged to see a doctor immediately.

How to save a life

When it comes to cardiac arrest, quick intervention is key to survival. Without quick intervention, someone who suffers a cardiac arrest almost always dies. In fact, of the 20,000 Australians who suffer out-of-hospital cardiac arrests each year, only 10% survive. So if you’re a bystander and recognise that someone is in cardiac arrest, an easy way to remember what do do is follow the Chain of Survival:

  • Early Access: Recognise an emergency and call Triple Zero (000) immediately
  • Early CPR: Begin Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) immediately
  • Early Defibrillation: Use the Automated External Defibrillator (AED) ASAP
  • Early Advanced Care: Transfer to the paramedics care

Early access

If you witness someone in cardiac arrest, call Triple Zero (000) immediately so that other treatments are made available before major damage to other vital organs occurs from the lack of sufficient blood and oxygen supply. Then, yell loudly for help from others – both with the CPR and to locate the nearest AED.

Early CPR

Start “hands only CPR” by pushing hard and fast with the heel of your hand in the centre of the person’s chest. Aim for around two chest presses a second (pressing to the beat of the Bee Gees hit Stayin’ Alive is a good guide). Keep doing it until someone comes and don’t stop. This is very important because the chance of survival is reduced by 10% every minute without CPR. Most people run out of steam after about two minutes, so keep yelling out for backup while doing compressions.

Early defibrillation

The time it takes to get a defibrillator onto a person’s chest is critical to improving their chance of survival. In fact, patients that are shocked by a public defibrillator survive at twice the rate of those shocked a few minutes later by a paramedic. So when an AED arrives, attach the pads to the person’s chest. The machine will give out voice instructions to tell you what to do. The defibrillator will deliver an electric shock to the heart to help resume its normal rhythm.

Early advanced care

Once you’ve shocked the heart to restart it, continue CPR until breathing resumes or the ambulance arrives to take over. Thanks to bystanders stepping in, St John WA has seen the number of people surviving out-of-hospital cardiac arrests increase by 75% in the last three years. So now is a better time than ever to learn basic first aid skills necessary for saving a life.