Heart Attack? Call 911 – Don’t just burp

“I’m just sore… I must have pulled a muscle in my chest or something.”

“I keep taking these antacids, but they’re defective or something. They aren’t working like they should.”

“I have drank like 5 sodas… if I could only belch I would feel so much better!”

If you’ve been in the EMS business long enough I’ll bet you have heard those exact words before from different people in disparate situations. They’re describing the uncomfortable feeling their having, and not the one they’re sure they’re not actually feeling in their chests. They’re describing to you the uncomfortable feeling they’re having within their psyche. They’re describing fear. They’re describing doubt. They’re describing the hope they want to have that they’re not actually feeling pain in their chests. They don’t want to be having something wrong with their hearts. They don’t want to be having a HEART ATTACK. This couldn’t be happening to them… this can’t be. They’re sorry they bothered you with a silly 911 call. They didn’t want to have all this fuss made for them by the ambulance and the fire truck and the police officers and the ER staff and the Doctors. This is all just so silly! Can’t we all just understand that if they could only belch that they’d feel better?

But, unfortunately that’s just not the case. That won’t be their path. That won’t be happening for them today. Today, they’re having a myocardial infarction and they’ve got a blocked artery in their heart that is causing it to tell them something… they just don’t want to listen. Honestly, the artery in their heart has been narrowing for a while now, they’ve just been ignoring the warning signs and not taking care of the problem for so long that their heart is becoming annoyed with them. Today, it is getting downright angry at them. Soon, their heart might just become “Pissed Off” and go on strike if they ignore what it’s telling them. Today it’s screaming at them and they’re still trying to do just that… They want to ignore the feeling they’re having, but now they’re scared and they’re starting to bargain. They don’t want to be someone who’s having a heart attack. This can’t happen to them. They don’t have heart attacks. That is something they’re worried about happening to other people, you know… people who aren’t them.

And yet the pain is there. It’s constant. They can’t seem to shake it or rationalize it away. Belching won’t help, and neither will taking antacids, drinking water, stretching, breathing deeply, or calling their friends to ask them about it. The pain, the weird feeling, the sickness, the dread… it’s not stopping and now it has been going on for hours.

And now? Now it is getting worse.

Fear creeps into these patients quickly but still they deny that anything is really wrong. When finally they present for treatment, whether by driving themselves to an urgent care center, by calling their doctor, or by even going to the local emergency room, they’re always shocked and in denial when they’re told “This could be a heart attack”. They defensively react and think that the medical care that is being “forced upon” them is “stupid” or unnecessary, or is “Just too much fuss”. They will still try to not believe it… well, part of them will try. They usually maintain a front. They don’t want to know that they could be indeed having a HEART ATTACK and that now is the time they need to trust the medical profession more so than they ever have trusted it in their life. They can’t fix this on their own, they can’t wish the pain away, and they can’t self heal the problem. By this time… no rationalization or self-healing thing will work. They need hard, conventional medical care… and they need it now.

As a paramedic, I have seen the type of patient I’ve described above many, many times. I have diagnosed acute myocardial infarctions in multitudes of patients who were angry at me for bestowing even the possibility of the diagnosis of “Heart Attack” upon them. Some have sworn at me, some have been relieved when I believed them, and all were scared. As a paramedic, I can diagnose and begin treatment on many types of cardiac conditions that fall into the “Heart Attack” category people fear so much. Paramedic and Ambulance care in the first stages of a heart attack can make a huge difference in how bad it gets and how much damage is prevented. Ambulance care during a heart attack saves not only lives, but it saves muscle. Consider the fact that during a heart attack, 1% of heart muscle is lost EVERY MINUTE it is left untreated. EMS can intervene, make a working diagnosis, and provide treatment and medications that will help slow or stop the damage.

And people really just need to forget about doing anything else other than calling 911 when they may be having one.

Really, if you’re even the least bit concerned that you could be having a heart attack, you should drop everything and just call 911. Don’t call your mom, your son, your friend, your spouse, or even your doctor. Call 911. Don’t do anything else… call 911 and just sit there. Someone in an ambulance will show up that knows what they’re doing. They’ll help you and you need their help. Now is the time to trust them and to let them do their job. Don’t ignore the pain, don’t worry about bothering them, and don’t feel bad for asking for help. You need an ambulance. They’re the best thing for you.

As a paramedic or EMT who is presented with a patient like this, you have a hard job. Not only must you provide appropriate diagnosis and treatment, but you also have to convince the patient to believe you and allow appropriate care. Reading a 12-lead EKG is easy compared to telling the patient and their family that you must bypass the closest hospital that they want to go to in favor of taking them to a bigger hospital, farther away, that has the cardiac surgery capabilities and cardiology services that they really need. This is the time to become a politician. This is the time to earn trust. This is the time that your skills as a caring and compassionate healthcare provider are going to be put to the test.

And if everyone stopped ignoring the problem and trusted their feelings, a lot of lives would be saved.

In the community that I serve, it is actually better medicine for a person having a heart attack to call 911 than it is for them to present to the emergency room. Even if that person immediately presents to the ER at the first warning sign of a heart attack, the ambulance still would have provided better care for them. Today’s ambulances bring appropriate care and highly trained medical professionals right to the patient’s side. Paramedics and EMTs can recognize the signs, help rule out mimics of a heart attack, perform diagnostic tests and an EKG, and can begin treatment with medications that stop, slow down, or even reverse the damage to the heart tissue in progress. The paramedics or EMTs in the ambulance can communicate with cardiologists and ER physicians at the local facilities and have a system in place to bring patients having a heart attack right into the facilities best prepared to take care of them, bypassing facilities that cannot provide the surgical intervention they may need… right away. Being immediately and appropriately treated by a paramedic and the emergency cardiology team early enough in a heart attack can make it almost seem like no big deal.

And that’s what we all want our heart attacks to be if and when we have one: No big deal.

So I’m telling you all out there. Don’t guess, don’t rationalize, and don’t hope it will go away. At the very first realization that the feeling you’re having, the pain, the ache, the soreness, the unusual heartburn, or however you describe it may be a heart attack; Call 911. Then sit and wait for us. We promise we won’t be mad if it’s something less serious.

But you’ll feel better, much better, no matter what it is.

Please, just call 911.

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  • You’ve stolen the thunder of my next blog post – and I thank you for it! You wrote it much better than I would have done…

  • Wes Ogilvie

    Thank you for writing this. As someone who is not in EMS full time, I intend to share this with my colleagues at my “day” job as well as my family and non-EMS friends. Bravo!

  • Richard Case

    This could be my story when I had my MI, I even stopped at a store for gasx on my way home. Lucky for me I took an asprin, drive to an ER with an agressive ER doctor and transported to Larger hospital with Cath lab with a great Cardo Dr.installed a stent with no heart damage. I was volunteer Battalion Chief and medic for 30 years and have 2 kids who FF/paramedics and 2 daughter in-laws who are ER/RN so I have seen several people who had heart attacks, but didn’t think I was having one till the ER nurse told me. I also learned the effects of Nitro, first two no effect third one my whole body exploded with pain. This is great article that everyone should read, FF and Medic should read this every month and become aware that they can have heart attacks

  • Here is one of the crazy paradoxes of the emergency business. We are up to our eyes in people who present to the ER or call EMS for, shall we say, non-serious conditions yet we have to just about *beg* some people to call us and let us treat them for their legitimately serious condition. As an ER nurse I have had a person with a STEMI who came by POV lying next to a person with a skin condition who called and used EMS to transport them to the ER. It’s one of those things that you have to chalk up to being “one of those things” otherwise it will just about drive you around the bend!

  • My mother is the person you described in this post…she once actively resisted calling 911 when she had chest pain. My father and I were litterally pleading with her to go to the hospital, as she would not permit either of us to call 911.

    Hers turned out to be nothing, but every time someone in my family gets chest pain, I get a phone call if they’re being resistive…

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