Posted on 07/24/2008

When a high profile figure does something unusual, we all seem to hear about it. When they leave us we wonder why, and start to question our own vulnerabilities. On June 13, 2008, a not so unusual event occurred at the NBC studios in Washington DC. You may be surprised to learn that the same event occurs hundreds of time per day, and yet it seems sudden and shocking. It is called a sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) and kills more people in this country than lung cancer, breast cancer and AIDS combined.

There is a definite, tangible benefit to the media attention this tragic loss has occasioned. It is the awareness of sudden cardiac arrest. The more the media relays the story of Tim Russert’s collapse, the more the public becomes aware. SCA has been the nations’ number one, “silent, serial killer” for too long already.

Luke Russert, Tim's son anticipated that lasting legacy and helped put his father's death in perspective, when giving his father's eulogy. Luke quoted George Bernard Shaw, observing, “The true joy of life is being used for a purpose recognized as a mighty one.”

Perhaps one of Tim's many mighty purposes is to raise awareness about SCA so that others may survive. It certainly seems to be the case, considering the number of news articles, blogs, and TV reports attempting to explain his demise. Most important is the evidence of preemptive action by members of the public, people avoiding the same fate by visiting their doctors and having a checkup.

Every week we hear of another “save.” Someone who had blockages, or an arrhythmia, previously undetected, but suddenly becomes concerned about their cardiac health. Same age, size, demeanor, or other similarity to Tim, they went to see if they were also in danger and found they were! No obvious symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath, but inside their bodies there were the dangerous conditions.

There is the story of Michael Bicks, who produces documentaries for ABC News, in the New York Times July 8 this year. He writes, “Though I am a 50-year-old guy with a stressful job and a little too much around the middle, I had a clean bill of health. I had good cholesterol numbers and a great doctor, and recently I had passed a cardiac stress test.” And then most tellingly said, “As in Tim Russert’s case, there were no warning signs. No sign I was suffering from coronary artery disease. A piece of plaque in one of my arteries just broke off and created a massive blood clot. When it did, I suffered a severe heart attack.”

Or the story of our Executive Director’s friend who was so stunned by Russert’s collapse that she went to her doctor to find out if she too could be affected. After the tests she was scheduled for preventative medicine because in fact she did have risk factors.

We also have two survivor stories that mention the striking similarity to Tim Russert’s situation. Each one was surprised by his event, and lucky to be one of the unique five percent who survive. Prevention is a far safer bet, until we have as many AEDs as we have fire protection systems (like extinguishers, sprinklers, alarms etc.). Do you know how to do CPR? Will you perform this life saving measure on someone you don’t know? If unsure please read our recent 3 part series on Hands only CPR and learn the basics: how, why and when.

The lesson is simple: It is critically important that you call 9-1-1, immediately start CPR, and use the AED.

This is lifesaving care that anyone can provide. It is best to be trained in CPR and the use of AEDs, but even without formal training, the rescuer should push hard and fast on the victim's chest and follow the directions on the AED until EMS arrive.

Anyone—including YOU—can help save a life. All it takes is the courage to act.

Letter to editor published in The New York Times

More on Tim Russert