By Barry W. Ramo Medical Director, New Heart Fitness and Health
Bob Odenkirk, better known as the star of the Albuquerque-based Better Call Saul TV series, was in the city for filming in July 2021. Without warning, he collapsed, unconscious on set. He had experienced cardiac arrest caused by a heart attack, which triggered a chaotic heart rhythm. The rhythm, called ventricular fibrillation, stops the heart from pumping blood.
Cardiac arrest like Odenkirk’s kills more than 300,000 people every year in the United States, most of these events occurring outside of a hospital. Many of those lives could have been saved with cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR. Unfortunately, bystanders who could have performed CPR instead wait for emergency responders to arrive. Without CPR, the survival rate drops by 10 percent per minute.
It is frightening to think if a family member or someone you know had a cardiac arrest in front of you and you did not know what to do. Because most people do nothing but wait for emergency personnel, the survival rate in cases like Odenkirk’s is less than 30 percent.
Odenkirk developed a chaotic heart rhythm called ventricular fibrillation (VF) that stopped his heart from pumping blood. In his case, VF was triggered by a heart attack, but that is not always the case. Three things had to occur to save his life: a call to 911, closed chest cardiac compressions, and the use of an automatic external defibrillator (AED).
When someone collapses and is not responding, you should assume they have had a cardiac arrest. Ideally, a bystander should call 911 to activate emergency medical service, while another begins cardiac compression, pushing hard and fast in the center of the chest at around 100-120 compressions per minute. This is about the same rate as the beat of the song “Staying’ Alive”.
If an AED is available, it should be used as quickly as possible. The AED is “idiot proof,” meaning it tells you exactly what to do. The instructions are on the case. You open the case, push the button and the device provides step-by-step instructions. The AED will also have two sticky pads to place on the chest in a manner corresponding to a picture on the case. The AED will analyze the heart rhythm and advise a shock if appropriate. Compressions should continue after a shock to the heart is delivered. The AED will tell you if further shocks are needed. Keep pumping until the patient awakens or emergency personnel arrives.
Media reports indicate that Odenkirk came through his event with no heart damage. In fact, he was back in Albuquerque working on his show shortly after. Odenkirk’s miracle happened because his co-workers were prepared. They knew what to do and had an AED on site. You, too, want to be prepared in case you are called upon to help save a life.
So, what can you do? Take a basic CPR course. There is no need to conduct rescue breathing, a maneuver that has kept many from performing CPR. CPR for the general public involves compressions only. Performing CPR when you witness a cardiac arrest can improve survival up to 70 percent, from less than 20 percent without it.
Project Heart Start is offering an hour-long free CPR training course June 16. Even though Covid-19 cases are down, masks and safe distancing will be practiced so you can feel safe. Program sponsors, the New Mexico Heart Institute Foundation and KOAT-TV, developed this program 12 years ago, and it has trained more than 130,000 New Mexicans to save a life.