Over the last few years we have increasingly heard more about people playing sports or just living their daily life and suddenly without any symptom at all passing of sudden cardiac arrest. Approximately seven years ago a good friend of mine whom I’ve known since elementary school, lost his younger brother who was captain of his high school basketball team to sudden cardiac arrest while playing basketball with teammates. He was in great physical condition, so it was a shock to not just his family, but his teammates, classmates and fans.
Access Hollywood co-host and correspondent Shaun Robinson has been affected by heart disease ever since she was a child. The TV personality lost her grandfather to the disease, and viewed her grandmother’s struggle to control it. Over the summer, she lost her good friend, actor Michael Clarke Duncan to sudden cardiac arrest, which an astonishing 1,000 people die from every single day.
Shaun has joined the crusade and teamed up with the Heart Rhythm Society to bring more awareness to sudden cardiac arrest which claims more than 350,000 lives every year, especially those of African-American and Hispanic descent. She joined me recently, along with acclaimed cardiologist and leading expert on SCA Dr. Walter Clair of the Heart Rhythm Society to talk about sudden cardiac arrest, from the symptoms, risk factors and much more!
Candace Rose: Can you tell us about your connection to sudden cardiac arrest?
Shaun Robinson: “I certainly can, Candace and thank you so much for having us today. I, like many Americans have a family history of heart disease. My grandfather died from heart disease; my father’s mother, my grandmother had heart disease. When I was a little girl, I remember her having that little bottle of Nitroglycerin tablets that she always used to wear around her neck or she might even tuck it in her bra. I didn’t realize when I was little that because grandma had a problem, I might have a problem later on in life. I was astounded by these statistics: over 350,000 Americans, 1,000 every single day will die of sudden cardiac arrest.
I just went to the funeral of my good friend Michael Clarke Duncan, the wonderful actor from the Green Mile. I went to his funeral, another death from sudden cardiac arrest. We need to do something about this. We need to take control of our lives, bring those numbers down and the way we do it is by knowing our family history, taking that information to our doctor and getting the proper care and any screening procedures or anything that we need to do to make sure we are not just another statistic.”
Candace Rose: What are some of the warning signs and symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest, and how do they differ from heart attack symptoms?
Dr. Walter Clair: “Well, the heart attack symptoms typically are chest pain and shortness of breath; occasionally there might be some light-headedness, but the main heart attack symptom would be chest discomfort. When that heart attack is occurring, what’s happening there is a blockage of arteries that provide blood to the heart, so the heart tissue tries to die. And in that process of trying to die it screams out bloody murder that it’s having discomfort.
When you have sudden cardiac arrest the problem there is an electrical problem; it’s not a plumbing problem. The cells of the heart are disturbed. As a consequence the heart goes into a terribly chaotic rhythm, and with that chaotic rhythm it’s unable to supply blood to vital organs and unable to supply blood to the brain, resulting in death.
Now some people will have sudden cardiac arrest while they’re trying to have a heart attack. Some people might have sudden cardiac arrest months or years after a heart attack. There are many people who don’t have any problems with their blood supply to the heart, and yet they have electrical instability that can result in sudden cardiac arrest, and that’s particularly true of young people.”
Candace Rose: Who is most at risk for sudden cardiac arrest?
Dr. Walter Clair: “Well, one of the things we’ve found over the last couple of decades is that in the United States in particular, African Americans are at much greater risk on average. We’ve recently done a survey trying to assess the extent to which there’s knowledge about this problem, and in our recent survey we’re surprised to find that 90% of the African Americans who were surveyed had never had a discussion about sudden cardiac arrest with their physicians. 60% of them may have had symptoms – symptoms such as fluttering of the heart, symptoms such as passing out and yet they never went to their physician with those symptoms to get those symptoms dealt with.”
Candace Rose: Do you have tips for someone who may be experiencing those symptoms but is afraid to speak out or tell anyone in their family, or tell their doctor about it? What should they do?
Dr. Walter Clair: “Well, I think one of the things they can start by doing is going to our website: ArrestTheRisk.org. I think that would tend to give them the background information that would give them the courage and the information to begin a dialogue either with their family or with their physician. And in particular with their physician about the risk for sudden cardiac arrest.”
Shaun Robinson: “And Candace, if I can jump in here- you said that if somebody is afraid to sort of speak up, and the fact of the matter is they should never be afraid. You should never be afraid to go to your doctor or call your doctor and say ‘You know what, I’m having these symptoms or I feel like my family history is so strong that I should not go to the doctor. You should never feel afraid or embarrassed or or anything because bottom line, this is your life and we need to get the word out to our friends or our family members that what we need to start doing is taking control. You know, whenever I’m in the doctors office I always feel kind of rushed like ‘Ooh I’m not going to bring this up because the doctor’s got another patient’. You know, that can be a very deadly mistake, so use that time and take that time and say, ‘This is what I need to talk to.’
And I think Dr. Clair will agree the more informed patient will get the better care because when a patient comes into the office and says ‘Okay, Doctor, these are the things’; as opposed to trying to just think of things on the spot. These are the things that I want to talk to. A doctor is going to take time and go over them, and you’re going to get better care that way.”
Candace Rose: Is there anything else people can do to reduce the likelihood of experiencing sudden cardiac arrest?
Dr Walter Clair: “I think one of the things that’s important is to make sure they get that family history. Go to those family reunions and interview the matriarchs and the patriarchs of that family and find out what cousin so-and-so died of, and what happened with Uncle Charlie over there, things of that sort. That’s very important. And then the next step of course is that personal history and looking at one’s own risk profile- hypertension, diabetes, eating properly, getting enough rest, decreasing stress exercising – all of those things contribute.
And then as Shaun has said, when it doubt have a discussion with your doctor. If the doctor doesn’t want to discuss it this visit- ‘let’s set up another visit doctor, we need to discuss this’.
If a patient visits our website ArrestTheRisk.org and gets the information to fortify their concern about this, I think they’ll find that they can have a fruitful dialogue with their doctor about it. And if the patient, himself or herself is not at risk, then the next thing they need to do is think about other family members – what about their blood relatives? What about their children? What about their spouse in particular? Many women have saved the lives of their husbands because the husbands tend not to want to complain about their symptoms, and the wife says ‘Honey, you’ve been in there with the doctor, every time you come home you tell me that everything is fine. How about if I go with you next time?’ And she finds out he’s not telling the doctor half of the things that are going on, so that’s very important.”