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what to expect when you have a heart attack

What To Expect When You’re Having A Heart Attack

February is American Heart Month and despite all the information out there about health, fitness, and nutrition, heart disease is still the number one killer of both men and women in the United States. If you ever find yourself in an emergency room where a physician thinks you might be having a heart attack, it will like quite a chaotic time – as a nurse who works in an ER and a nurse who advocates for nutrition education – here are some things you should know and learn to expect when and if you ever have a heart attack.

What To Expect When You’re Having A Heart Attack

If you ever find yourself having a heart attack in a hospital, I won’t lie to you, it’s going to seem like a chaotic mess. You will find yourself in a room with a lot of nurses, a couple of doctors, and a lot of things happening really fast.

What A Heart Attack Looks Like

STEMI heart attack

That elevation in those highlighted lines means severe tissue death to your heart – and once it’s dead – it’s dead. This picture is taken off what’s called an electrocardiogram and it’s basically a tracing of the electrical activity of your heart. In fact, by looking at the different tracings healthcare providers can get an idea of where in the heart your heart attack is. This specific type of heart attack is called a STEMI heart attack and once a STEMI is determined – a hospital wide “STEMI Code” will be activated and that’s when the fun begins. The room will suddenly be filled with several nurses, ER techs, an ER doctor, and eventually a cardiologist. It’s an overwhelming experience and if you ever find yourself having a heart attack, here’s what to expect.

1. You’ll Need A Couple Of IV’s

2. Labs and chest X-Ray

In addition to all the healthcare providers, you’ll need to have your blood work looked at and someone will also be by to take a chest x-ray to get a window to see what’s going on with your heart.

3. You Will Be Given These Medications (Unless Contraindicated):

Aspirin: Unless you have an allergy to this medication, you’ll be given 324mg of aspirin and be asked to chew it. Aspirin works to reduce blood platelets from clumping together and in the event your heart attack is caused by a clot, chewing aspirin helps to keep the clot from getting bigger – saving your heart tissue. If you find yourself having chest pain at home – CHEW, don’t swallow the pills whole as chewing the pills is the fastest way to have aspirin take effect.

Nitroglycerin: It’s a standard to receive nitroglycerin, either as a paste on the chest or a spray/tab underneath the tongue or both. This drug is given to help open up the blood vessels to help increase blood flow and oxygenation to the heart. Word of caution – nitroglycerin will likely cause a headache as a side effect.

Morphine: Morphine is often given to help relieve chest pain – morphine can also help to open your blood vessels and decrease your blood pressure and allow for better oxygenation.

Heparin: Heparin is a type of blood thinner that’s given along with aspirin to help keep your blood from clotting – the likely reason you’re having a heart attack in the first place.

4. You Will Get A Shave

Next up is to get your prepared and ready for a heart catheterization (more on that below). In order for that you’ll need to get a good shave of both sides of your groin as well as your wrist – most likely the right wrist. While all this is going on, either the ER doctor or the cardiologist will be telling you about the heart catheterization that you’ll soon be having and one of the nurses will consent you for the procedure.

5. You’ll Head Off To The Cath Lab

Once you’re done in the ER, you’ll head off to the cath lab. There you’ll be sedated and the cardiologist will make a puncture site through one of the areas that were cleaned/shaved – either your groin or wrist. From there the cardiologist will use a guide wire through an artery that leads to your heart. Once the guide wire is inserted and near your heart, the cardiologist will use a contrast dye on under radiology to look at the blood flow to your heart and also check for defects and blocked arteries. In the event of a STEMI you’ll likely need stents to open your arteries to give your heart adequate blood flow again. A stent is a tiny mesh tube that’s inserted into the arteries to open them and increase blood flow. Worst case scenario – you’ll need open heart surgery where a vein or artery will be taken from another part of your body and be used in place of the blocked artery in the heart.

Once the procedure is done you’ll head off to the recovery unit while you recover from the procedure. From there you’ll be transferred to a standard hospital unit where you’ll receive further discharge instructions based on the findings from your cath lab procedure.

Keep in mind, the minutes leading up to going to cath lab can be a stressful and awkward time. The benchmark goal is to get people to the cath lab from the time that they walk in to the ER within thirty minutes. It’s a lot to get done in a small portion of time. The next benchmark is to get your arteries flowing again within ninety minutes.

As always, there are things you can do to reduce the risk from having a heart attack. These things should be common sense by now and include physical activity on almost a daily basis as well as a diet low in refined sugars and within your caloric needs. Natural foods are your friends. Hopefully this helps – keep your heart healthy.

Do you have a question about what it’s like when you’re having a major heart attack? Leave a comment below and we will answer it.


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