Health Matters: Fibs

Your heart beats about 80,000 times each day. In order for this to really work, the electrical system of the heart, including the pace makers and the “wiring” must coordinate so that all four chambers beat in sequence. If they didn’t, blood would travel backwards, your head would swell and eventually explode. It’s extremely embarrassing. Other parts of the heart must coordinate as well, but let’s focus on the electricity. When your heart’s natural pacemaker fires, the upper chambers of the heart push blood to fill the lower chambers. Then the heart’s second pacemaker fires and the lower chambers send blood to the lungs and to the rest of the body. If any part of the electrical system is faulty, an arrhythmia, “bad rhythm” can result. Arrhythmias can be irregular, fast, or slow, or all three. If it is too fast or too slow, then blood pressure drops and, if it drops hard, so will you. A shock of electricity can fix a heart that is beating too fast. Here’s why.

Imagine that you are now dressed in a cheerleading outfit and you are standing in front the bleachers filled with people. Does this excite you? Is your heart beating too fast? Then you need to be shocked. Anyway, your job is to get this huge crowd to cheer in unison. But the crowd is jabbering away, mouths full of popcorn and beer, talking, yelling, and spitting beer and kernels all over each other. It’s a big, giant mess and you have no chance. You happen to notice, out of the corner of your eye, a high voltage line hanging down from a power pole. Luckily for you, the OPALCO guys haven’t yet discovered the line, and even luckier they haven’t seen you in your outfit. You grab the wire and touch it to the metal bleachers. Suddenly all of the beer-spitters stop yelling. Now you can lead the cheer! If only they weren’t dead.

Emergency heart shocks works just like that, except for the dead part. The idea behind the shock is to force all of the cells in the heart to discharge their energy all at once and create a few moments of quiet during which your pacemaker can take control again. If it does, then the heart will begin to beat normally. The shock process is called “defibrillation” not electrocution. The Lopez Fire Department and EMS are fundraising for new defibrillators. These machines are a bit more sophisticated than a high voltage power line. They have the ability to monitor the rhythm, diagnose it, and deliver the shock at just the right instant to optimize the chances of restarting the heart, and they do not spit beer.

The kinds of arrhythmias that can be shocked are atrial fibrillation, ventricular tachycardia, and ventricular fibrillation. The last two are the worst and typically lead to death if not treated right away. Our Fire Department is seeking donations for defibrillators that are even smarter than the older versions being used now. They use a different kind of shock that works better. Treating the bad rhythms mentioned above is hugely dependent upon how soon the victim is defibrillated, or shocked. Even a delay of a few minutes can have critical results, so having more defibrillators is better. I see a day when eventually everyone on Lopez will have their own personal defibrillator. We will defibrillate each other on a daily basis. We will wave our paddles at each other as we drive by. We will become the shockingly friendly island. Please support your Lopez Fire Department and EMS by donating to the defibrillator fund drive.