It’s not like the dying fly. It’s not about lying on your back with your arms and legs in the air flailing around and then stopping. That’s not a heart attack.
But I always thought it was. It just shows how little I knew of what a heart attack is. But the thing is, I don’t think I’m alone. In fact I know I’m not alone. In my generation and maybe in our children’s generation there are so many misconceptions about what a heart attack is, how it presents itself and what the outcome is.
‘So Dad, you really did have a heart attack? And you didn’t die? That’s so cool!’
That was Edward, our 16 year old son, when I told him what had happened to me. It turns out I could be good for his street cred at the moment. Every cloud and all that.
The BHF says that on an average day 545 people will go to hospital with a heart attack. And on an average day how many people die from a heart attack? 180, that’s how many. Granted that is 180 too many, but it’s only a third of the total. If you have a heart attack there is a very high chance, a 7 in 10 chance in fact that you will survive. I never realised the figure was so high, largely because I held a popular misconception about what a heart attack is.
In my mind a heart attack was when you collapsed to the floor, did a little bit of the dying fly and stopped breathing. Then everyone around you tried to remember how to do CPR and also remembered that they hadn’t contributed to the collection for a defibrillator that they had seen in the pub that time they were last in, felt hugely remorseful and vowed to do so next time they popped by.
That’s not a heart attack. That’s a cardiac arrest.
A heart attack is when one of the coronary arteries in the heart becomes blocked. The heart muscle is robbed of its vital blood supply and, if left untreated begins to die because it is not getting enough oxygen.
A cardiac arrest is when a person’s heart stops pumping blood around their body and they stop breathing normally. It is true that many cardiac arrests in adults happen because of a heart attack and that is because a person who is having a heart attack may develop a dangerous heart rhythm, which can cause a cardiac arrest. But a cardiac arrest isn’t a heart attack.
When you have a heart attack you are conscious, when you have a cardiac arrest you are a long way from being conscious.
And rather than having a 70% chance of surviving a heart attack you have less than a 10% chance of surviving a cardiac arrest.
So let’s dispel that little misconception. When you have a heart attack you are going to be conscious. Very conscious.
The most common symptom is chest pain, a feeling of tightness in the centre of the chest which can come on for seemingly no reason and may last for several minutes, doesn’t decrease with resting and can pass also for seemingly no reason. I had this. And it hurt. And when it had passed it felt like someone had smashed my chest with a hammer. It was sore. But not everyone who has a heart attack will experience chest pain.
That chest pain can spread to other areas, often the arm, the jaw, neck, back and abdomen. But it doesn’t always and it doesn’t have to. It did with me, my left arm and the area under my arm felt painful and I experienced a pins and needles sensation.
You may be short of breath, you may cough and wheeze, feel weak and light headed or dizzy. You may also feel or be sick, feel anxious and sweat. You may even notice your heartbeat and have palpitations.
‘Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.’ said Margaret Mead, a US anthropologist from the late sixties. I wish I could have found a quote from Churchill, or Einstein or Maggie, but I can’t so I’m going to have to run with this one. The point is simple though, what I experienced and felt when I had my heart attack is different to what Paul, the guy who was in the bed next to me at Oldham had felt. There is no list that means once you have ticked all of the 11 items off in order that ‘Congratulations Mr Barnetson, you are having a heart attack!’ is the cry. It doesn’t work like that. It is the combination of symptoms that indicate what may be happening. And these symptoms or combination of them are likely to be different for everyone.
It’s at times like this that I wish that I had paid more attention to the creative minds around me when I worked in the branding and marketing agencies that I have in my career. They would have been able to come up with a wonderfully catchy acronym (and probably a nice logo) that summarised what the symptoms of a heart attack were that would make it very easy to remember, but I have to admit I am facing into the abyss of failure and can only offer you – CSWSALSWP. Not a lot of use I know, I mean where are the vowels when you need them?
One other learning that I had is that when you have a heart attack, you haven’t got heartburn. So passing it off as heartburn and devouring half a packet of Gaviscon, as I did, and remarking on how bloody useless they are because they obviously don’t do what they are meant to isn’t going to work. It might work for Tim and Tom, the twins in the advert, but if you are having a heart attack Gaviscon is of bugger all use. Absolutely none.
It is true that both heartburn and a heart attack commonly cause chest pain, which might radiate to the jaw or arm. It is the character of the pain and accompanying symptoms that provide the clues. A burning chest pain accompanied by a sour or bitter taste in the mouth and burning in the back of the throat point towards heartburn. I didn’t have any taste in my mouth or burning in my throat. But I still ate half a pack of Gaviscon though, as I wasn’t having a heart attack, because I hadn’t collapsed on the floor and I was still conscious. On the other hand, chest pain accompanied by shortness of breath, sweating and/or dizziness suggests the underlying problem is more likely a heart attack.
And one final thing that I never realised. When you have a heart attack there isn’t a fanfare, there aren’t big flashing lights and a celebrity dressed to the nines walking down a sweeping set of stairs towards you. It’s just normal. Unbelievably normal and you can be anywhere doing anything. I would love to say that I had mine doing some wonderfully adventurous sporting accomplishment. But I didn’t. I was at home sitting on the sofa watching Italy play Scotland in the Six Nations and someone came and smashed me in the chest with a hammer and that box of Gaviscon in the kitchen was useless. Bloody useless.