During a sudden cardiac arrest, bystanders, apart from calling for emergency medical help, can begin chest compression at the rate of 100 times a minute on the victim, to improve the chances of survival and keep the person alive till medical help arrives.
Dr. Gordon A. Ewy, chief of cardiology at the University of Arizona, and a key member of the research team, said that most of the time, bystanders are unable to discern the life threatening risks of abnormal breathing.
He said, "They call 911 and say that someone has fainted. When they are asked, 'Are they breathing,' they say, 'Oh yeah, they are breathing,' so no one is dispatched. Four or five minutes later, the person stops breathing and they call 911 again. That four or five minutes probably cost the patient his life."
The main problem according to Dr.Ewy is recognising abnormal breathing and giving a name to it. The commonly used word is 'snoring'. Explaining how misleading abnormal breathing could be, he said, "A wife will say, 'My husband was snoring at night,' and she woke up to find him dead."
Underlining the 'life and death' nature of bystander action, Ewy said, "If you call 911 and just stand there, you might as well sign their death certificate."
Even in the absence of abnormal breathing, explained Ewy, immediate action can help. "If you start early enough and do a good job, some of these people will start gasping," he said.
A study conducted in Arizona found that in 39% of the cases of sudden cardiac arrest, gasping was present. Among those patients who were helped by bystanders, 39% of gaspers survived, as against 9.4% of non-gaspers.
Only 21.1 percent of gaspers who did not receive bystander help survived as against 6.7 non-gaspers
Dr. Vinay Nadkarni, an associate professor of anaesthesia and critical care medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said, "The big message to the lay public is that you can make a difference and save a life. If they can recognize this breathing pattern as abnormal, all they have to do is call 911 and push hard on the chest. More and more people now are willing to do CPR. But there is information that they might not be starting it soon enough. An abnormal, gasping breathing pattern is consistent with cardiac arrest and calls for immediate action."
He explained that abnormal breathing indicates that even though the heart has stopped, the brain is still receiving blood. With proper emergency measures, the victim could still be saved.