Survival Can Hinge on Actions of Bystanders

Survival Can Hinge on Actions of Bystanders

Interview with Professor Robert Denniss, Director Cardiology, Westmead Hospital
Extract: MHF Life, 1st Edition, 2018
Publishing Partner: Access News

“I have heard people comment that they feel reticent or frightened or don’t feel capable to step in and we need to get the community to understand that they can do something, that they shouldn’t feel timid. Community awareness is particularly important.”

Professor Robert Denniss has endured extreme highs and dramatic lows as the head of a busy cardiology department at a major Sydney hospital.

“It is sometimes forlorn trying to treat patients with out of hospital cardiac arrests and we have deaths. It’s not easy to break that news to the relatives. But we also have spectacular successes and we get great joy in turning things around,” said Professor Denniss, head of cardiology at Westmead Hospital.

In the case of sudden cardiac arrest – when the heart suddenly stops beating – survival can hinge on the actions of bystanders.

Feeling frightened

“Time is critical. CPR that is carried out within five minutes of a person collapsing will preserve the patient’s brain function. Most ambulances take eight minutes to get to the scene so it is really important to have enough community awareness so people don’t feel inhibited to initiate CPR,” Professor Denniss said.

“Then if a defibrillator is used early on to restore a normal rhythm, the rate of survival improves again.

“I have heard people comment that they feel reticent or frightened or don’t feel capable to step in and we need to get the community to understand that they can do something, that they shouldn’t feel timid. Community awareness is particularly important.”

That is why Professor Denniss joined the Michael Hughes Foundation as patron to help the group spread the message that first responders can save the life of someone who has collapsed from a sudden cardiac arrest.

“Cardiologists and nursing staff share the foundation’s vision of educating the community and campaigning for defibrillators at key sites so that the downtime, or amount of time between when the person has collapsed and the time someone gets to them, is minimised. The patients are then more likely to survive without brain injury,” Professor Denniss said.

With heart disease a leading cause of death in Australia, Professor Denniss is encouraged by the fall in the rate of deaths which he put down to “effective primary prevention and improved treatments”.

But in Western Sydney, there remains a high incidence of premature heart disease, he said.

“Western Sydney has a diverse population with pockets of wealth and pockets of poverty where people with heart disease are often in their 30s.”

Preventative measures

In these cases, preventative measures are key to reducing the risk of sudden cardiac arrest, including blood pressure checks, and cholesterol and blood sugar screening especially among people with a family history of heart disease.

Professor Denniss said he was inspired into a career in cardiology after training at Westmead Hospital in the 1980s.

“Every new development translates into something very useful,” he said of advances in medical technology, adding the hospital’s catheter lab had made major inroads in averting or reducing the size of heart attacks.
Professor Denniss said he would like Australia to follow the lead of Seattle in the United States which he said enjoyed some of the best sudden cardiac arrest survival rates in the world.

“That is because of a combination of a rapid response ambulance service, bystanders stepping in and commencing CPR, and defibrillators being placed at key places in the community,” he said.

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