Your Health

When it comes to cardiac arrest, every second counts

Photo of an AED next to a CPR training dummy.
Photo of Diana Doyle-Zebrun. LISA BAGAN
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, February 2, 2018

It is estimated that about 2,000 Manitobans will suffer cardiac arrest this year.

Fortunately, some of these individuals will survive, thanks in part to the increasing availability of automated external defibrillators (AEDs) throughout the city – and the rapid response of bystanders who know how to use them.
As we kick off Heart Month this February, the Heart and Stroke Foundation would like to take this opportunity to encourage more Manitobans to become familiar with AEDs and how they can be used, along with cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), to save lives.

Let’s start with a little background.

Most people tend to think of cardiac arrest as being synonymous with having a heart attack. But cardiac arrest and heart attack are not the same.

Heart attack describes a plumbing problem that occurs when the heart muscle’s own blood supply is either slowed or blocked. In this case, the heart continues to beat blood throughout the body so a person having a heart attack is generally still conscious but in discomfort. However, there is a risk that heart attack can progress to cardiac arrest.

Cardiac arrest is more serious. It is an electrical problem in the heart that can affect anyone regardless of age. The heart goes into an erratic and ineffective rhythm, and cannot pump blood through the body to keep the brain, heart, kidneys, and other organs alive. Within minutes, the heart stops beating entirely. You can recognize a cardiac arrest because the person will suddenly lose consciousness and stop breathing normally.

Most cardiac arrests (an estimated 85 per cent) will happen outside of a medical facility, such as at home, work, school, or play, and require fast action on the part of bystanders.

This is where AEDs come into play. These little portable machines are programmed to detect whether a person’s heart is beating erratically. If it is, the machine will deliver an electric shock in order to get the heart beating properly again.

Manitoba has taken the lead on ensuring public access to AEDs. In 2013, the province became the first in Canada to pass legislation mandating the placement of AEDs in all schools and high-traffic public places such as gyms, community centres, and golf courses throughout the province.

The Defibrillator Public Access Act also requires that all AEDs be registered with Heart & Stroke, which then advises 911 dispatchers of their location, enabling faster more effective assistance to the rescuer in a cardiac emergency.

Quick action in using an AED and/or CPR is imperative. The chances of surviving a cardiac arrest drop dramatically each minute that passes without CPR or the help of an AED. In other words, every second counts. If nobody takes action within that critical first few minutes, the probability of survival is extremely low.

If you see somebody suddenly collapse, or if they don’t respond when you touch or talk to them, they could be having a cardiac arrest. You could save their life by doing the following:

  • Phone 911 to activate Emergency Medical Services. Ask for a CPR coach and whether there are any AEDs nearby. If so, ask a passer-by to bring it to you while you stay with the patient.  
  • Immediately begin chest compressions. CPR keeps the blood moving to the brain and vital organs. Hands-only CPR is a simple way to do it with no mouth-to-mouth rescue breathing. No training is required. Simply push hard and fast in the centre of the chest at a rate of 100 beats per minute, and keep going until EMS arrives and takes over.
  • Use an AED if one is accessible to you. AEDs are safe and easy to use. No training required. Simply turn it on and follow the voice prompts. AEDs are programmed to coach you through the steps, and AEDs will not deliver a shock if the person doesn’t need it.
  • Don’t hesitate to act right away. You can’t hurt, you can only help.

Learning how to do CPR and to use an AED can give someone who has a cardiac arrest a chance to take back their life after what could have been a fatal event. Heart & Stroke offers a broad range of courses that deliver hands-on training in CPR, rescue breathing, and show you how to use an AED. Find a course in your community at

Lisa Bagan is a licensed practical nurse and Manager of Resuscitation Programming at Heart & Stroke in Manitoba. This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, February 2, 2018.

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