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Heart attacks: Expecting the unexpected

Nobody ever expects to have a heart attack. Yet, it’s the number one killer of both men and women each year in the United States.

In Weston, the painful aftermath of a heart attack was felt throughout town when beloved volunteer and coach Adam Wysota died suddenly from a heart attack on May 6, at age 47.

His death deeply saddened the community, while at the same time fostering a discussion about heart attacks, recognizing their symptoms, and stressing the importance of taking immediate action. (See Symptoms of a Heart Attack below)

A heart attack occurs when a section of the heart muscle dies or gets damaged because of reduced blood supply, according to the American Heart Association. Sudden cardiac arrest — the stopping of the heart — occurs when the heart stops completely. Unless treated, a person whose heart has stopped can die within minutes.

Chest discomfort and pain is a major symptom of a heart attack, according to Dr. Stephen Michaelson of Weston, a cardiologist with Cardiology Associates of Fairfield County.

“If the pain comes from exertion and is relieved by rest it could be heart related. A heart attack can be the first presentation in about 25% of people with coronary heart disease,” he said.

It’s important to seek medical attention right away under these circumstances. “Get medical help. Call the paramedics and don’t drive yourself to the hospital,” Dr. Michaelson said.

People who experience a heart attack need emergency care such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or electrical shock (defibrillation). The chances of surviving a heart attack are greater when emergency treatment begins quickly.

“Time is of the essence when it comes to heart attacks,” said JT Sollazzo, chief of Weston EMS. He recalled a man who survived a heart attack at 94 because he was given CPR in a timely fashion.

When it comes to pain, men should not be “macho,” said Don Saltzman, a patient volunteer at St. Vincent’s Hospital. “Men think pain will go away, and they ignore their symptoms, but they shouldn’t. A heart attack can be a silent killer,” he said.

HEARTSafe

When it comes to handling heart attack emergencies, Weston has a decided edge. Last year, the town was named by the Connecticut Department of Health as a “HEARTSafe Community,” meaning a high percentage of the population is CPR certified and trained to use an automated external defribillator (AED). Only 66 towns in the state have achieved that designation so far.

Weston EMS volunteers, led by Nisan Eventoff, have trained more than 250 people of all ages in town in CPR and the use of AEDs.

All Weston police vehicles, ambulances and fire engines are outfitted with AEDs. In addition, there are a number of AEDs located in public areas throughout Weston: at town hall, the senior center, the schools, central office, the fire stations, Town Hall Annex, Booster Barn, Lang’s Pharmacy, Aspetuck Country Club, The Weston Field Club, and Norfield Church. Mr. Eventoff said The Weston Gun Club is in the process of installing an AED.

“The police and EMS are first responders so if you have any heaviness in your chest or any tightness or symptoms of radiating pain don’t hesitate to call 9-1-1,” Mr. Eventoff said.

Women

Heart attacks are by no means limited to men. Monica Wheeler, community health director at the Westport Weston Health District, has noticed an increase in women getting heart attacks and at younger ages.

“Heart attack symptoms can be different in women. It doesn’t have to be pain. You can really just be not feeling well. You need to pay attention to what your body is telling you. Many women ignore the symptoms,” she said.

Ellen Finch Mokler, a 55-year old diabetic woman, has suffered two heart attacks. In 2010, while adjusting to an insulin pump, she felt sick and thought she was coming down with a cold. “It progressed and my blood sugar went very high. I then felt nauseous and couldn’t keep food down. I felt so ill, I couldn’t even walk to my car,” she said. It turned out she was having a heart attack.

“Nausea is a common heart attack symptom in women,” Ms. Wheeler said.

Hands Only CPR

Because early action and response can be key to saving someone’s life, Ms. Wheeler, Mr. Sollazzo and Mr. Eventoff are in joint support of having people learn “Hands Only CPR.”

Regular CPR is a combination of chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, while Hands Only CPR involves only two steps: Calling 911, and pushing hard and fast in the center of a chest. It does not involve mouth-to-mouth work.

Hands Only CPR has proven very effective in saving the lives of heart attack victims, and is easy for many people to learn. “This year people were taught Hands Only CPR at the Boston Marathon. It took them just five minutes,” Ms. Wheeler said.

While there is no 100% guarantee that someone will survive a heart attack even with early CPR, Ms. Wheeler believes chances for survival are significantly improved with it being performed. “If everyone knew how to perform Hands Only CPR and responded quickly [by calling 9-1-1 and starting compressions], when they witnessed someone collapse and unresponsive, what an impact there would be on the death rate from heart attacks,” she said.

Hands Only CPR is so easy to learn that Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and students in the town’s SafeRides program have picked it up.

“All this training and all these AEDs make Weston a HEARTSafe town and when it comes to saving a life, it’s the best thing we can do for each other,” Mr. Eventoff said.

For more information about learning regular CPR, Hands Only CPR, or how to use an AED, contact Mr. Eventoff at 203-222-2600.

Symptoms of a heart attack

According to the American Heart Association and Centers for Disease Control, heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States. Each year more than one million Americans experience a heart attack, with nearly half of them fatal. Of those who die, almost half do so suddenly before they can get to a hospital.

Recognizing the symptoms of a heart attack and taking quick action can save someone’s life. In men, the main symptoms of a heart attack are:
•    Undue or unusual fatigue.
•    Palpitations, the sensation that your heart is skipping a beat or beating too rapidly
•    Dyspnea, difficult or labored breathing. It can occur with chest discomfort or before it.
•    Pain in the left arm, wrist, jaw or back.
•    Chest pain or discomfort from increased activity. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest. It can feel like uncontrollable pressure, squeezing or fullness.

Even though heart disease is the number one killer of women, women often chalk up their symptoms to less life-threatening conditions like acid reflux, the flu, or normal aging, according to the American Heart Association.

The following are common heart attack symptoms for women:
•    Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
•    Pain, discomfort, or weakness in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
•    Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
•    Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, unusual fatigue, indigestion and nausea or lightheadedness.

As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting and back or jaw pain.

If you have any of these signs, the American Heart Association advises not waiting more than five minutes before calling for help. Call 9-1-1 and get to a hospital right away.

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