It was a typical morning for Adrienne and Dan. They woke up and turned to each other to welcome the day with a kiss and an “I love you.”
He went to get the newspaper, and she went into the kitchen to prepare coffee. He was at the breakfast table and told her that the forecast was for another sunny day. Adrienne was still in the kitchen but could hear him. She started talking to him about her plans for the day.
When she came out of the kitchen to bring the coffee to the table, Dan was slumped over in his chair, dead.
Dan had sudden cardiac arrest. Sudden cardiac arrest is defined medically as death or cardiac arrest occurring within one hour of the onset of symptoms, which could include chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting or racing heart beats. Studies have shown, however, that the majority of people who have sudden cardiac arrest collapse or die without any symptoms.
Their heart goes into an electrical short circuit (arrhythmia) that prevents effective pumping of blood into the body. Eight to 10 seconds of this type of arrhythmia will cause someone to pass out and collapse; if it continues, they can die.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that roughly 600,000 people died in one year from heart disease, and based on historical trends, about 60 percent of these deaths are due to sudden cardiac arrest. SCA claims more lives each year than the lives lost from stroke, lung cancer, AIDS and breast cancer combined. Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in America year after year.
Studies have shown that people at the highest risk of SCA are those who have a weak heart muscle, also known as congestive heart failure. The heart normally pumps anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of the blood in its chamber out into the body every heart beat. If that percentage drops to 35 percent or less, then the risk of SCA increases significantly. Factors that cause the heart muscle to weaken include high blood pressure, diabetes, cocaine and other recreational drug abuse, virus infections and family inherited disorders.
Thankfully, decades of medical research have shown that certain heart medications, close follow-up with a heart specialist, and a heart device called an implantable cardioverter defibrillator can significantly increase survival and prolong life in people who are at a high risk for SCA.
UTMB has a new Heart Rhythm Center, equipped with state-of-the-art technology and staffed by nurses and doctors who are specifically trained to evaluate and treat people at risk for sudden cardiac arrest.
October is Sudden Cardiac Arrest Awareness Month. Many lives have been lost to SCA, and the story of Adrienne and Dan is not uncommon. The pain of losing a friend or loved one suddenly without warning is devastating. However, with continued medical research, increased awareness campaigns, and greater community access to state-of-the-art medical centers like UTMB, the problem of sudden cardiac arrest can be solved.
Dr. George Carayannopoulos is director of the UTMB Heart Rhythm Center. To contact the Heart Rhythm Center, call 409-772-2222.
Photos by Jennifer Reynolds, Galveston Daily News.