Women in cardiac arrest less likely to get CPR from bystanders

What health experts are doing to combat the deadly disadvantage

By Melanie Lawson - The Morning Show anchor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - If a man drops to the ground, many people will assume he's having a heart attack and bystanders will likely call 911 and start CPR.

But if a woman displays the exact same symptoms, bystanders would probably still call 911 -- but they more often stop short of administering chest compressions to keep her alive.

A study published in the European Heart Journal found that, overall, a woman's chance of surviving cardiac arrest outside of the hospital is about half that of a man's. The numbers are lower from the moment she shows symptoms to when she gets to the hospital. 

Janet Davis, a 51-year-old real estate agent, mother and wife, said based on her experience, she’s not surprised by the study's findings. Davis was not the typical face of heart disease -- until she was.

"It's, like 'Wow', you know? There was a lot missed," Davis said. "Looking at the time period lapsed in between -- almost three months -- I'm thinking 'I could have been dead.'"

Davis was much closer to death than even her doctors could tell. In 2016, she had discomfort in her chest and pain in her left arm. Even with these classic symptoms of heart problems, she was dismissed with a pill.

“The doctor put me on Nexium for heartburn thinking I had heartburn because of the discomfort," Davis said.

But her symptoms kept getting worse. One day, when she was showing a house and was exhausted, huffing and puffing, she knew she needed immediate help.

"So I went to the hospital, and at the hospital, they did a basic test. I mean, I waited actually an hour to get a room," Davis said.

It was another missed opportunity. This time, Davis was given an inhaler.

"I've heard other people talking about their husbands going in or whatever and they immediately started seeing about them. So then you think, 'Well, maybe looking back now, it wasn't taken seriously when a female came in,'" Davis said.

The recent study found that even if someone such as Davis dropped unconscious to the ground, people around her still might not have tried resuscitation.

“People don't recognize that women can have cardiac arrest," Rama said. "They always think that maybe she just fainted or maybe she's faking it, which has happened, and I think some people think that way. And so they don't administer CPR right away."

Dr. Pamela Rama is one of six women cardiologists at Baptist Health. She's been pushing for more education surrounding women and heart disease for years and these are the reasons why.

The study showed women who have cardiac arrest are 10% less likely to receive a resuscitation attempt by a bystander. Women are also less likely to survive even after they start treatment in the hospital.

After three months of pills and puffs, Davis was diagnosed by Rama with a 90% blockage in her left main artery to the heart.

"She said, 'I'm not trying to scare you, but that's the reason it's called the widow-maker because if it hits, that's it," Davis said.

Davis was a ticking time bomb and, within two days, she was in surgery.

"Unfortunately, she didn't fit the narrative. They were expecting a male smoker to have that symptom, but she being a young female, they just didn't think about coronary artery disease as the reason for her symptoms," Rama said.

Rama said the stigma must change to save lives in and out of the hospital.

“You know, it's amazing. At this day and age, I still have women that tell me that they never knew that heart disease was going to be their No.1 problem," Rama said.

Davis is part of a campaign at Baptist to educate the public about women and heart disease. She's the perfect face for that because she knows firsthand how lives depend on it.

“She asked me if there was anything that came up to help with awareness would I do it and I said, 'Absolutely.' I don't want anybody to go through what I went through and not be able to be treated because they may be dead,” Davis said.

Rama said another deterrent for the general population to help resuscitate a woman is her breasts. She said men don't want to be accused of violating a woman.

There’s something in the works to educate people about administering CPR to women. It’s a prototype called a Womanikin. It's a breast attachment that fits most CPR mannequins so that professionals and others can practice chest compressions on a woman's body. 

The Womanikin is an opportunity to change the mindset. And that's important, because the No. 1 thing that can save anybody who has a heart attack is CPR training.

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