After Scott Hansen’s heart gave out last year, strangers used its power to give him another chance at life. When Bill Pelow’s heart stopped in 2011, Daniel Velazquez became his lifeline because of it.
Charlette Sanders isn’t a widow today and her children have a father because she learned the lifesaving technique during an emergency conversation with 911 operator Amy Breitenbach.
Cardiopulmonary resuscitation, better known as CPR, the only known method of keeping someone alive until medically necessary treatment can be administered, saves tens of thousands of lives in heart-related crises annually in the United States alone.
But as wonderful as that is, it is also true that tens of thousands of other Americans die because CPR isn’t used. The American Heart Association reports that less than one-third of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest victims — there are about 400,000 each year — receive CPR from a bystander.
David Slattery, Las Vegas Fire and Rescue’s medical director, said studies show that Americans find intervening “very scary” because they’re not medically trained and that fear often paralyzes them.
Considering that cardiac arrest survival falls an estimated 7 percent to 10 percent for every minute without CPR and that it takes an average of four to six minutes across the country for rescue personnel to arrive, the low rate of bystander CPR plays a critical role on outcomes.
Less than 8 percent of people who suffer cardiac arrest outside the hospital survive.
Slattery said too many people continue to think that conventional mouth-to-mouth CPR is all that is used, and they fear catching a disease. But he pointed out that the American Heart Association now recommends “hands-only” chest compressions, in cases of a suspected cardiac arrest, particularly when adults or teens collapse.
The medical director added that good Samaritan laws protect individuals from being sued after trying to help someone with the lifesaving measure.
Although people continue to sign up for CPR classes given through both the American Red Cross and the American Heart Association much slower than Slattery would like — where both the “hands-only” and conventional technique are taught — he said the “hands-only” technique can still save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives in Nevada.
He said after people call 911, medically trained 911 operators can talk the untrained through “hands-only” CPR compressions.
Amy Breitenbach did just that during the early evening of June 1 when Charlette Sanders called. She and her 40-year-old electrician husband had been playing a word game on the edge of the bed when Daniel suddenly toppled forward.
“I turned him over right away and saw he wasn’t breathing,” Charlette Sanders said recently. “I had watched ‘Rescue 911’ so I knew to call right away.”
When Breitenbach learned that Daniel Sanders was on the bed, she told his wife to put him on the floor.
“She was scared,” Breitenbach said, “but once I gave her something to do, she kept her focus.”
What Sanders heard from Breitenbach, said Shannon Lund, chief 911 communications specialist, is what all 911 operators have been trained to calmly share:
“Place the heel of one hand on the breastbone in the center of the chest, right between the nipples. Put the other hand on top of that hand. Then push down firmly 2 inches with only the heel of your lower hand.
“Now listen carefully, you’re going to pump the chest hard and fast. At least twice per second. We’re going to do this 600 times or until help can take over. Now let the chest come all the way up between the pumps. I want you to count out loud so I can count with you. One, two, three, four. … You can do this. Don’t give up.”
Charlette Sanders said she didn’t have time to panic.
“I had to do what I had to do,” she said.
Less than five minutes after she started CPR on her husband, six members with Engine 5 and Rescue 5 from Las Vegas Fire and Rescue arrived. Both the engine and the rescue teams were sent, public information officer Tim Szymanski said, because a cardiac arrest call signals an endangered life. These calls, Szymanski added, require “Delta-level response,” in which several personnel take over emergency measures and keep family and onlookers under control.
A full-size defibrillator, which acts much like jumper cables for a car, kick-started Sanders’ heart back into rhythm. In the ambulance, cold IV therapy was used on Sanders to slow his metabolism down, which helps protect the brain and the heart, as well as other organs, from the inflammatory process caused by cardiac arrest.
When Sanders reached Valley Hospital, the chilling continued; his body temperature was taken down to 93 degrees for about 24 hours. Later, he would have a stent put in an artery that was 90 percent closed.
A week later, he was out of the hospital. Today, he’s riding a bike 150 miles a week and swimming another 10 as he prepares for a triathlon next year.
“That 911 operator obviously knew how to get CPR across,” Daniel Sanders said.
When a bystander does CPR after a cardiac arrest, and cooling processes are used on the victim in the ambulance and hospital, as many as 50 percent of Las Vegans who had a heart stoppage are able to go home and resume normal lives, Slattery said.
“We need that CPR done right away to stop terrible brain damage,” he said. “People have to realize that who we’re talking about here are often their loved ones.”
When Scott Hansen and Bill Pelow had heart trouble, they were lucky to have strangers or colleagues nearby that already knew CPR.
Daniel Velazquez, security director for Nevada Restaurant Services, performed CPR on Pelow, a maintenance man, shortly after he showed up one day at the business operation on West Bonanza Road.
“He had entered the receptionist desk area and collapsed,” said Velazquez, who has also performed CPR successfully when he worked at casinos. “The dispatcher screamed for me and I came running.”
Velazquez, trained in CPR as a Marine, first gave Pelow two quick breaths and then used chest compressions. A few minutes later, paramedics took over.
Pelow, 69, ended up having a triple bypass and was out of the hospital a week later. He returned to work in maintenance full time two months later.
“I feel great,” he said
Today, Pelow’s wife, Tori, gives the security director “a hug whenever I see him. My husband wouldn’t be here without him.”
The 66-year-old Hansen, a retired firefighter for the Air Force, was driving home from a NASCAR race when he felt ill. He was mid-heart attack as he got on the onramp toward Las Vegas on Interstate 15. His car stopped and his wife sought help.
“Two strangers came and got him out of the car and did CPR before other help came,” Donna Hansen said. “I wish I knew who they were so I could thank them. My husband’s alive because of them.”
Slattery said there’s good news for Nevadans who might find themselves in emergency situations in the future. A bill passed in the last legislative session requires junior high or high school students to take a health course that includes instruction in CPR and the use of an automated external defibrillator.
Automated external defibrillators, or AEDs, which shock a cardiac arrest victim’s heart back into rhythm, are now found in many businesses. Some people even have them in their homes.
A money shortage could keep the classes from being offered, but Slattery doesn’t think that will happen, given that the bill passed without a dissenting vote. School districts will find the money because people want the lifesaving technique taught as part of their children’s curriculum, he said.
The American Heart Association doesn’t want people to think conventional CPR should no longer be practiced. It recommends CPR with a combination of breaths and compressions for: all infants up to age 1; children up to puberty; anyone found unconscious and not breathing normally; and any victims of drowning, drug overdose, collapse caused by breathing problems or prolonged cardiac arrest.
The city of Las Vegas has taken steps to get people trained in CPR to the scene.
It has partnered with the nonprofit PulsePoint Foundation to provide a free smartphone alert application. The app signals to the smartphone user when he or she is within 200 yards of someone in a public place who needs CPR.
The app uses call information as it comes into dispatchers and then provides a map on the user’s phone showing how to get to the cardiac victim. The app also shows where to find the nearest automatic external defibrillator.
To install the PulsePoint app, search for PulsePoint in the Apple app store or in Android Apps on Google Play.
“Still, what people really need to remember, whether they’ve been trained or not, is to call 911 immediately when someone is having suspected heart problems,” Slattery said. “That operator can help you do what you need to do. Time is just so important.”
He noted that the vast majority of cardiac arrests — statistics kept by the heart association peg it at 88 percent — occur in the home.
That’s why the association, when encouraging people to sign up for a CPR course, uses this tag line:
“The life you save with CPR is mostly likely to be someone you love.”
Contact reporter Paul Harasim at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2908.