The Truth about CPR

I’m sure you’ve seen it on a medical television show; a person in the emergency room loses consciousness, and a swarm of nurses and doctors rush around yelling “Code Blue”. Someone pushes on the person’s chest, oxygen and medicine are administered, and in minutes that person is back awake, apparently fine.

I honestly think this scenario is what people think about when they hear the word CPR, which stands for cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Unfortunately this image is skewed.

Originally known as closed chest massage, the technique was first described by surgeons in the 1950’s and used exclusively for patients whose heart stopped during surgery.  Later resuscitation breathing was added and in 1963 the term CPR was adopted.

Over the last 50 years we have recorded data on how good CPR is at restoring blood flow, and more importantly in allowing an individual to keep living. It is interesting to note, that despite all of the medical advances over the last half century, the actual rates of survival from CPR have not changed.

The number we care about most is how many people are able to leave the hospital alive after needing CPR.  That number remains at about 15%.  In other words less than 2 people of every 10 that undergo CPR will leave the hospital alive.

I find this more troubling: If you are already in the hospital for a different reason, and your heart stops, but it is not witnessed when it happens, then the chances of you leaving the hospital alive are only 1%.  In fact, one study showed that if CPR was attempted on someone with a terminal illness in the hospital, that 0% survived the effort.

Why am I listing such negative statistics? In attempts to give accurate information on an intervention that most of us assume is always lifesaving. CPR does save some people, especially if they are healthy and have an unexpected heart attack or arrhythmia.  However, in people with cancer, or who are already seriously ill, CPR is often not helpful. In fact, CPR in those situations can be harmful, in that the procedure itself can break ribs, cause pain and be traumatic for families to witness.

This decision on whether to do CPR or not is known as someone’s code status. Perhaps you’ve heard the terms full code or DNR (Do not resuscitate), these phrases are the declaration of what someone wishes for themselves when they enter a medical facility.  These terms are something you should consider telling people around you, so that they can speak up for you, when you cannot.

Another way to look at the code status discussion is to think of it as a question on how you want to die.  Since the chance, when already ill, of surviving CPR is almost nil, the question is, when my heart stops do I want to die naturally, focusing on comfort with family hovering, or do I want to die in chaos, focusing on chemicals and numbers, with a medical team hovering?

Consider this in closing. I’ve never met a family who has wished their loved one could have had CPR as they died, but I’ve had many families lament with regret that CPR was performed.

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