What Should Everyone Know About Heart Attacks?

You’ve likely heard that “time is money.” Well, in health care, there are occasions when “time is life.” A case in point is when a person has a heart attack.

A heart attack happens when you get a blockage in your coronary artery. This is the blood vessel that supplies blood to your heart muscle. Your heart needs the blood flow to keep working.

A blockage in the coronary artery can result from:

  • A blood clot getting caught in the artery.
  • Plaque build-up along the artery walls that cuts off the supply of blood.

The worst kind of heart attack is what we call a STEMI (short for ST-elevation myocardial infarction). That’s what’s considered a full-blown heart attack — when the blood flow through one of the arteries feeding the heart muscle is completely cut off. If the artery isn’t unblocked quickly, heart muscle tissue can die.

This takes us to a “time is life” situation. If you have a blockage in your coronary artery, it needs to be opened within minutes. The more time that passes before treatment, the more of the heart tissue dies. As you might guess, once too much heart tissue dies, so do you.

But There Is Good News

Depending on the severity of the heart attack, health care professionals may treat the attack using clot-busting drugs or a procedure to unblock the artery. After the heart attack, there are other treatments to help damaged heart muscle tissue recover.

Angioplasty Can Save a Life

In some cases treatment may include coronary angioplasty and a stent — also called percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI).

Coronary angioplasty is a nonsurgical procedure that improves blood flow to your heart muscle. During this procedure, doctors use a needle to make a tiny hole in one of the blood vessels in the arm or groin after numbing with local anesthesia. They’ll insert a long, thin tube (catheter) with a tiny balloon on the end. They’ll guide the tube and balloon to the location of the blockage in the coronary artery. The doctors then inflate the small balloon to clear the blockage and implant a stent to keep the artery open. This is a short procedure that requires only a few hours of bedrest afterwards.

As we mentioned, time is life. The more time that passes from the time the heart attack symptoms start to the time when the artery is reopened and blood flow restored, the more damage can occur to the heart.

Improving the Process — Door-to-Balloon Time

At heart-care facilities across the nation, including Aurora Health Care medical centers, teams are working to develop ways to treat heart attack patients more quickly. Specifically, we’re reducing the time from when a heart attack victim arrives at the hospital to the time when we’re able to clear the coronary artery blockage using the balloon.

In the medical field, we refer to this as the “door-to-balloon time” — or D2B.

Across the Aurora Health Care system, we’ve had great results in efforts to reduce our D2B times. Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee recently tracked its monthly average D2B time at 36 minutes.

One patient received his life-saving balloon angioplasty procedure in just 20 minutes. To put that in perspective, in 2015 the national average for door-to-balloon time was 57 minutes. Aurora St. Luke’s average time was just 43 minutes at that time.

The time we track includes patient intake in the emergency department, preparing the patient and the medical team for the angioplasty, and actually opening the coronary artery blockage.

Signs of a Heart Attack

Every day, about 2,000 Americans have a heart attack. That’s an average of 40 people in every state every day. You should know the symptoms of a heart attack before you or someone you care about has one. Keep in mind that not everyone will have the same symptoms.

  • Chest pain or a squeezing feeling in the chest.
  • Pain in one or both arms, in the back, shoulders, neck or jaw.
  • New onset shortness of breath.
  • Light headedness.
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat.
  • Nausea.
  • Unusual fatigue.

If you notice these symptoms in yourself or someone else, do not ignore them.

  • Call 911 immediately.
  • Do not drive yourself to the hospital. You may pass out behind the wheel.

If someone displays these symptoms, they may say they’ll be OK, but delaying getting medical care can lead to dire consequences — even death. Don’t take the risk.

Keeping Your Heart Healthy

Here are some key steps you can take starting today to improve your heart health:

If you have questions about your heart health, see your health care professional or a heart specialist. Learn more about heart and vascular health on Aurora.org.

Meet the Author

Dr. Tonga Nfor, MD, MSPH, is an Interventional Cardiologist at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI. 

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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