Tim Russert's death highlights need for sudden cardiac arrest education

Rhythm Reset

Along with so many others, I was deeply saddened when I heard that Tim Russert, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, had died of a sudden cardiac arrest (SCA).

I know a lot of us will miss Russert on Sundays and election nights, while his friends, family, and colleagues will miss him always. But with all due respect to this accomplished man, his death is no more tragic than each one of the hundreds of people who die due to SCA every day. In fact, SCA claims more lives in the U.S. each year than stroke, lung cancer, breast cancer, and AIDS combined.

What makes this statistic especially sad is that many of those deaths could be prevented with quick action.

Newsweek recommends

When I started following the coverage of Russert’s death, I knew two things:

The mainstream press would take the opportunity to underline the importance of cholesterol lowering statins and other drugs to alleviate heart disease risks

There might be greater awareness of how to treat SCA within the first few minutes of onset

As for number one, Newsweek didn’t let me down. In a “web exclusive” published less than 24 hours after Russert’s death, the authors wrote: “What is clear is that there are ways to lower one’s risk of sudden cardiac death: eat healthy, exercise, don’t smoke, and take aspirin or statins.”

Right. So next time you visit your doctor, ask him to write a prescription for a statin – recommended by two complete strangers who write for Newsweek. No examination or diagnosis necessary!

Automated, externalquick

Unfortunately, it looks like I was a bit off the mark on number two.

Amid the outpouring of affection for Russert and his family, details about his health – and about SCA specifically – received fairly little attention. Which is too bad because in this case information could easily save lives.

SCA occurs when the ventricles of the heart begin to contract chaotically and fall out of their normal rhythm. Blood flow stops and within a few seconds the victim loses consciousness. When this happened to Russert, someone called 911 and began CPR. When EMS personnel arrived they immediately began defibrillation, which delivers an electric shock to reset the heart’s normal rhythm.

But to be effective, defibrillation has to be administered very quickly. Usually, by the time EMS arrives the window of opportunity has closed, which was the case with Russert. And it’s all too common. About 95 percent of SCA victims die before defibrillation.

That percentage might be significantly lowered with widespread use of automated external defibrillators (AEDs), which can be stationed anywhere – offices, airports, malls, etc.

Several years ago, Congress passed the Cardiac Arrest Survival Act, requiring AEDs to be installed in all federal buildings in the U.S. The Act also provides “good Samaritan” protections so that any person who provides emergency care with an AED will be free of liability for civil damages.

AEDs are simple enough to be operated by laymen, but training is recommended. American Red Cross chapters throughout the U.S. offer Workplace Training programs. To find out more, contact your local Red Cross chapter or visit their web site at redcross.org.

“What Happened to Russert” Mary Carmichael and Caitlin McDevitt, Newsweek, 6/14/08, newsweek.com
“Tim Russert: One of a Kind; One of 300,000” Ron Winslow, The Wall Street Journal, 6/13/08, blogs.wsj.com
“Public Use of Automated External Defibrillators” New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 347, 10/17/02, content.nejm.org