When someone suffers from cardiac arrest — an electrical malfunction in your heart that abruptly stops it from beating — knowing how to perform CPR can literally save their life.
But more often than not, too many people stand back and watch in fear, doing nothing as a person slowly dies from lack of blood flow and oxygen, explains Holly Andersen, MD, attending cardiologist at New York Presbyterian Hospital and director of education and outreach for the Ronald O. Perelman Heart Institute.
Only 46% of cardiac arrest victims get the help they need before emergency services arrive, she says. By then, it’s likely too late. This lack of action could be due to various reasons, but mostly, people might be too nervous to hurt someone, or even touch them in away that could be considered inappropriate in completely different circumstances.
“Cardiac arrest is more common in men, but women are 50% less likely to get help from bystanders,” says Dr. Andersen. “We, as a society, have become more careful about what we do with others.”
But this shouldn’t be the case in a life-or-death situation — in a restaurant, on the train, or even at home (where 70% of cardiac arrests actually take place). “I’m so sick of watching soccer players die on the field with a stadium full of people around doing nothing,” says Dr. Andersen. “Everybody should know how to save a life.”
Even if you’re terrified in the moment, trying to do something (even if you’re not professionally trained in CPR) is better than doing nothing at all. Here’s what you need to know about CPR — and exactly how to do it.
CPR stands for cardiopulmonary resuscitation. When someone stops breathing — say, due to cardiac arrest, heart attack, or nearly drowning — performing CPR while you wait for emergency services to arrive can help get oxygen-rich blood circulating to vital organs.
“When you’re pushing down in the middle of the chest, you’re pushing the sternum, or the breastbone, up and down over the heart,” explains Dr. Andersen. “You’re basically pumping the heart for them. You’re pumping blood from the heart to the body and it’s incredibly effective.”
Each second counts when someone’s blood flow stops. “With every minute without CPR, the chance of survival goes down by 10%,” says Dr. Andersen. “Within five minutes, brain cells begin to die. And within 10 minutes, the chance of survival is basically zero.”
You don’t have to be certified to make a difference. In a 2010 meta-analysis published in The Lancet, researchers found that bystanders who performed hands-only CPR (no mouth-to-mouth) with instructions from a 911 dispatcher boosted the victims’ chances of survival compared to standard mouth-to-mouth CPR.
“Pretty much no one knows you don’t have to do mouth-to-mouth anymore — hands-only CPR is the way to go,” says Dr. Andersen.
That’s because mouth-to-mouth is rarely done effectively. “When you stop doing compressions to do mouth-to-mouth, you’ve lost all that pressure,” she explains. “It takes a few compressions, probably five to seven compressions, to build up enough pressure to really start moving blood. So as soon as you stop, you have to start over.”
Hands-only CPR requires just three simple steps:
1. ✔ CHECK to see if the person is responsive. Tap their shoulder to see if they are still breathing or moving. When someone suffers from cardiac arrest, they will drop to the floor fast, won’t be breathing or moving, and will turn blue quickly
2. ? CALL 911 as soon as you realize they are not responding.
3. ❤ Start hands-only CHEST COMPRESSIONS. Keeping your arms straight, hands interlocked, and palms open, push down fast and hard on the center of their chest with the heel of your palm. You need to push down roughly two inches deep to really administer enough pressure, aiming for two compressions per second. That means you need to perform around 120 uninterrupted compressions per minute. You’ll hit 120 if you sing “Staying Alive” to yourself and perform chest compressions to the beat.