Cardiac arrest, heart attack and failure: What’s the difference?


caitlin-giesler-2016-_k1a8670Ascension Seton cardiologist explains heart conditions in light of George Michael and Carrie Fisher deaths

This week the world lost two pop culture icons, George Michael and Carrie Fisher. In light of recent news about these much-loved celebrities, doctors say it’s important to understand various heart condition signs, symptoms and tips for prevention.

Caitlin Giesler, MD, Ascension Seton Heart Institute cardiologist and director of the Ascension Seton Women’s Heart Center says educating yourself on the different types of heart conditions, as well as what to do for each, can help save lives.

Seton is part of Ascension, the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system

Cardiac Arrest

Carrie Fisher suffered cardiac arrest, a condition that happens when the electrical system of the heart stops working correctly and the heart stops beating completely.

Giesler says during cardiac arrest, a person suddenly loses consciousness, and it often happens without warning. If you see someone in cardiac arrest, the best treatment is to shock the heart if an automated external defibrillator (AED) is available and to call 911 immediately. If an AED is not available, the next best thing is to perform CPR until help arrives.

“Most people who experience cardiac arrest have coronary artery disease, but unfortunately, this is often the first sign,” Giesler said. “The more everyone is able to recognize cardiac arrest and spring into action, the more lives can be saved.”

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Heart Failure

George Michael died Sunday due to heart failure at the age of 53.

“Heart failure happens when the pumping function of the heart can’t keep up with demand, but it doesn’t stop completely,” Giesler said. “The pump is too weak or too stiff and blood does not circulate through the body.”

It is a chronic condition that often leads to gradual deterioration and disability. Sudden cardiac arrest is the most common cause of death in someone with heart failure and a weak heart muscle. Heart failure can be caused by damage to the heart muscle from heart attacks, drug use, chemotherapy and viruses along with other less common causes.

Immediate action with CPR and an AED can, again, save lives.

Heart Attack

So what’s a heart attack? Giesler says it’s a “plumbing” rather than “electrical” problem. It happens suddenly when one of the arteries supplying blood to the heart is completely blocked, causing damage to the heart muscle. A person suffering from a heart attack does not usually lose consciousness unless it has become an electrical cardiac arrest.

“Heart attacks are very uncomfortable and cause sudden heart failure,” she said. “So a person having a heart attack will have symptoms like chest pressure, discomfort, difficulty breathing and weakness.”

In the case of a heart attack where the person is still conscious, CPR or AED use is not recommended. Instead, Gielser says the best thing to do is chew two aspirin immediately and call 911 to get to the hospital where doctors can open the artery as soon as possible.

Ascension Seton offers comprehensive cardiac care including screening, emergency heart care and the region’s only Heart Specialty Care and Transplant Center. Visit for more information on heart health.