Just before Christmas, people across the world learned that beloved Star Wars actress and best-selling author Carrie Fisher suffered a cardiac emergency while on a flight home to LA. Within a few days, we were all mourning her death.
During this time, media outlets all over the world were reporting on her condition. Some news stories reported she suffered a heart attack; others reported she suffered a cardiac arrest. And many simply used both of those terms interchangeably.
But is there a difference?
A heart attack, also called a myocardial infarction (MI), occurs when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart becomes partially or completely blocked. This happens because the coronary arteries can become narrowed from a build up of fat, cholesterol and other substances, called plaque. When the plaque breaks, a blood clot forms around the plaque and can block the blood flow.
Recovery from a heart attack depends on the length of time the heart muscle is without blood flow, which heart vessel is blocked, and whether or not treatment is immediately started. Emergency care is required for a heart attack. So if you have symptoms, get to an emergency room immediately. And don’t drive! When at all possible, call 911 for an ambulance. Paramedics will have equipment to help treat you on the way to the hospital and can get you there quicker.
Every 34 seconds, someone dies from heart and blood vessel diseases, America’s No. 1 killer.
A cardiac arrest is when the heart malfunctions and stops beating or ‘arrests’. Death occurs in minutes after the heart stops because oxygen-enriched blood is no longer flowing through the body. In some instances, immediately performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and use of an automatic external defibrillator (AED) can help provide oxygen to the body and get the heart started again.
In the instance of Ms. Fisher, witnesses on the airplane have said that she stopped breathing for 10-15 minutes. Passengers, trained in CPR, tried to revive her and when the plane landed, paramedics continued to provide advanced life support on the way to the hospital.
However, the amount of time she was without oxygen proved to be irreversible. A death certificate issued by the LA County Department of Health confirmed that her cause of death was cardiac arrest. What may have contributed to her heart stopping is still being determined.
Carrie Fisher’s death, as well as the death of her mother just a few days later from a stroke, highlights the importance of raising awareness of heart disease in women. While we don’t know if Fisher had any symptoms prior to boarding a plane that day, what we can take from this is that it can happen to anyone. Heart disease is the #1 killer of women and it sometimes has no symptoms, which is why it is called the silent killer.
So, during this American Heart Month, we would like to encourage women (and men) to take care of their hearts. Get regular checkups. Talk to your doctor about what you can do to stay healthy. If you are in a higher risk group, or if you have a family history of heart disease, ask you doctor what you can do to lower that risk.
To find a cardiologist at Mercy Health System, visit our website and use our Find a Doctor tool at www.mercyhealth.org/find-a-doctor.
Sources: American Heart Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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