You wake up and feel some tightness in your chest. You think it will go away. But five minutes later, you also feel like you can’t breathe. You know you’ll need medical help fast. But is it better to drive yourself to the nearest emergency department or call 911?
Many people think they can get to the closest hospital faster by driving themselves, or by having a spouse, relative or friend drive them. But traveling by car actually increases your risks for poor health outcomes in many ways.
“Bad things can happen in cars,” Tortorelli says. “If you’re driving yourself to the hospital and your condition worsens, you could pass out and cause an accident. If someone is driving you, you could become unresponsive, and you won’t be able to get any medical help until you arrive at the hospital—or until the paramedics find you.”
A review of patient cases at Atlantic Health System shows that heart attack patients who call 911 get treatment an average of 30 minutes faster than those who drive themselves to the hospital.
“Our paramedics will perform a 12-lead electrocardiogram (EKG), a non-invasive test that can identify a heart attack, arrhythmias and other cardiac issues,” says David Petersen, Director of Clinical Quality for Atlantic Mobile Health, which provides pre-hospital ground and air transport for a wide range of needs.
If an EKG determines that you’re having a heart attack, paramedics will then administer medications, start an intravenous line and take additional steps to start saving your heart muscle. They will also respond quickly in the ambulance should your condition worsen on your way to the hospital.
The pre-hospital care team will stay in constant communication with in-hospital providers while en route. “We’ll talk directly with your Emergency Department physician and explain your condition in detail so they can get whatever resources they need—such as a cardiac catheterization lab team—ready before you arrive,” Petersen says.
You should call 911 as soon as you experience symptoms of a potentially serious heart problem. “Any pain from your belly button to your nose could be cardiac-related,” Petersen says.
While some people experience classic symptoms of a heart attack, such as feeling like an elephant is sitting on your chest, other people may have less severe symptoms, such as jaw, shoulder or arm pain, nausea or vomiting.
No matter the exact symptoms, “if you suspect a heart attack, don’t attempt to drive to an ER or Urgent Care. Call 911 right away.” Petersen says. “The sooner you do, the better your outcome will be.”