At OTOW: Knowing the vital signs

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By Amy Ryffel-Kragh

What are the signs of a heart attack or stroke? What can a bystander do if someone is having a medical emergency?

Joel Matthias, EMS captain of Marion County Fire Rescue, answered those questions and more during a recent talk at On Top of the World, as part of National EMS Week. He also gave residents some tips about what to do when an emergency occurs.

Matthias advised that when a person experiences chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, they might be having a heart attack. Another symptom, which might be overlooked by a patient, is the “feeling of impending doom.” “When somebody tells me, I feel like I am going to die, I believe them,” said the more than 20-year medical veteran.

He called the feeling a “classic sign” that the patient is in trouble and needs immediate medical attention. Matthias urged residents to call 9-1-1 as soon as they realize something is wrong. But, not all patients do. Some people may dismiss the cardiac arrest symptoms for being indigestion. “That is a bad thing to tell yourself,” he said.

When in cardiac arrest, it is important to get to the hospital immediately. Matthias said they should be in the “cath lab” within 90 minutes after the onset of the medical emergency.

During a stroke, a person might experience weakness, paralysis, blurred vision and slurred speech. Matthias referred to a stroke as a “very disabling event for most people.” Patients having a stroke should be at the hospital within three hours of the onset, which studies have shown gives them a better chance of survival.

A warning sign related to a potential stroke is a TIA or transient ischemic attack, which is a mini-stroke. “The signs come and then they go away,” he said. Someone who has had a TIA has an increased chance of having a major stroke in the next five years, Mat-thias said.

Though people cannot control if they will have a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime, there are some preventive measures that can be taken, like proper diet and exercise, which can help. In addition, Matthias recommends residents take a cardiopulmonary resuscitation or CPR class, which are offered at OTOW. He also demonstrated how to use an automatic external defibrillator or AED, which is used when the heart has stopped.


People over the age of 55 have a 25 percent greater chance of having a heart attack or stroke, Matthias said. The number increases every five years. Men are more prone to have a heart attack or stroke than women. But, the rate for women is increasing. In addition, African Americans are more likely to have a heart attack but Caucasians numbers are increasing. Diabetics and people who are obese are also more apt to have a stroke or heart attack.