by James Hubbard, MD, MPH
Today, we honor the heart. No, not that mushy, metaphoric, romantic thing (although many of us had better take note of that too). No, I’m talking the actual heart. That organ that works day after day, keeping us going, even in our sleep—that fist-size mass of muscle that never takes a rest, for a whole lifetime.
We usually ignore this pump of life, or take it for granted. But let it get out of rhythm or stop just for a couple of seconds, and suddenly it becomes the most important piece of meat in the world.
So, why don’t we take a few minutes out of our busy day and learn a little about this essential tool that keeps our body humming—or ticking as it may be?
Whether it’s your best friend or a complete stranger, saving someone’s life can be one of the most rewarding and memorable things you ever do. But first, you have to be prepared. Oh, and why not get your friends and loved ones to read this little post, too, just in case the heart to be saved happens to be your own.
This post contains some pretty basic stuff. But in some ways the heart is pretty basic too. It’s just your basic, automatic pump—maybe the most reliable one ever. But when it goes bad, it’s really hard to get a fast replacement. So, if you don’t get these basics down, well, more knowledge is not going to matter.
Tip: It’s much easier to learn this stuff now than when you actually need it. Because if that time comes, your going to have a tough enough time keeping your own heart from coming out your throat.
Lesson #1: Know How to Check a Pulse
If someone is unresponsive, the first thing you’ll want to do is check for a pulse, all the time yelling for someone to call 911, if it’s available. If there’s no pulse, that means the heart has stopped or is beating so weakly that the blood’s not getting to the other organs.
First, I’d check the wrist. If you don’t feel a pulse there, check in the neck. You’ll want to know:
If there is a pulse.
If the rate is abnormally fast or slow.
If the rhythm is nice and regular, there are skips or it’s irregular.
If the pulse is strong or weak.
The only way you’re going to properly assess these four things is to have checked pulses over and over again until you know what normal feels like. It took me checking a few hundred before I felt comfortable deciding whether there was no pulse or I was just not locating it—or, if there was a pulse, whether it was the one in my own finger.
Start learning by checking your own. Do it several times a day. When you feel comfortable finding yours, check someone else’s. (Just let them know what you’re doing ahead of time, or you might get slapped.)
To find the wrist pulse, flex your wrist inward and you’ll see a tendon pop up. If you don’t see it, try feeling for it with your other hand.
Now, move your other hand’s index and middle fingers to the thumb side of that flexed tendon. The radial pulse is in that area.
Notice the strength of the pulse. Notice how hard you must push down to feel the pulse. Note the rhythm. Is it regular? Get a feel for the rate. These days, many people don’t have a watch with a second hand so you need to know innately what a normal rate, between 60 and 100, feels like.
Another place you can easily find a pulse is the carotid artery in your neck. Feel at the upper part where your neck and jaw meet. The artery is on each side of your windpipe. But when you check yours or someone else’s here, be careful not to push really hard or massage the area too long. There’s a little node in that vicinity that helps regulate your heartbeat. If you push and massage too much, you might slow down your heart and get dizzy. Also, older folks can have a little plaque there, inside the artery. Theoretically, at least, you can disturb the plaque too much and a piece of it could break off, go to the brain and cause a stroke.
Hey, though, if it’s me you find, don’t overly worry. You’re trying to save my life and the odds are pretty low already.
If you’re trying to find someone else’s pulse, you want to make sure you’re not feeling your own—the one in your finger. Checking with two fingers (your index and middle on the same hand) helps.
Lesson #2: Learn How to Do Chest Compressions Correctly
The way to do this has changed in the last few years. We’ve found, especially for non-health care workers, that it’s much more important to do chest compressions and do them correctly than worry about the breathing. So …
First: Make sure the person is lying on a firm surface so the compressions can actually compress the chest.
Second: Locate the area to compress. That would be at the middle of a horizontal line between the two nipples.
Third: Put one hand on top of the other and intermesh your fingers. Press down on the mid-chest with the base of your hands. You have to press in firmly so that you’re compressing the chest about an inch to an inch-and-a-half. Ignore what you see in the movies. They’re never pressing hard enough. If you look closely, the chest is hardly moving. (Of course, no wonder. They’re usually working on another living, healthy human.) After you compress, relax the pressure and allow the chest to return back up.
Fourth: Compress at a rate of 100 beats per minute. An easy way to remember the rate is it’s the same beat as the song “Stayin’ Alive,” by the Bee Gees. Sing or hum it if it helps. If you’re a little more on the morbid side the rate’s also the same beat as “Another One Bites the Dust.” Your call.
Lesson #3: Know How to Use Automatic External Defibrillators
You see the boxes everywhere. But do you know how to use them?
Actually, they’re easier than you might think. If I were to relate them to a plumbing problem they’d be about as easy as learning which handle gives you the cold water and which the hot.
You open the box and read the instructions. Easier yet, turn on the power switch and a soothing voice walks you through every detail.
Illustrations show you where to place the pads. The computer in the AED reads the heart rhythm and tells you what to do.
Here’s a five-minute video I found on YouTube demonstrating the AED.
There are plenty of others. Take your pick.
As with chest compressions, though, the best way to learn is taking a hands-on course. Check with your local hospital, American Heart Association or American Red Cross. The course instructors typically are great and not at all intimidating. The classes can actually be fun.
If you just learn these three simple steps, odds are great that if someone’s heart stops beating, you’ll be the most capable person available to save that life.
For more information on heart abnormalities, see:
“How to Slow a Fast Heart Rate” http://www.thesurvivaldoctor.com/2012/10/25/fast-heart-rate/
“Are Heart Palpitations Dangerous?” http://www.thesurvivaldoctor.com/2013/02/07/heart-palpitations-are-they-dangerous/
Family doctor James Hubbard teaches how to survive during disasters, or any time you can’t get expert medical help, at TheSurvivalDoctor.com. His tips are a combination of science, makeshift medicine and Grandma’s home remedies.