Cooling down the core after a heart attack

Dr. Anthony Ochoa explains therapeutic hypothermia.

Every minute counts after someone has a heart attack, and the negative effects can last a lifetime. The time is so crucial because when a person's body has limited blood flow, damage to other organs can occur.

The more minutes a person goes without good blood circulation, the more problems they can face. One of the first things people rely on during a heart attack is someone nearby administering good CPR and getting their heart restarted.

Dr. Anthony Ochoa is the vice-president of inpatient cardiology at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City. He says getting that CPR to someone as soon as possible is the best chance at saving their life. After that, damage to other organs like the brain and kidneys needs to be limited as well. Doctors at Munson try to prevent this damage by using a cooling device, called the Arctic Sun, to lower a patient's core body temperature. This process is called therapeutic hypothermia.

"The idea behind to decrease the amount of inflammation that occurs once somebody has a cardiac arrest but we've been able to restore their heart rthym," Ochoa said.

A person is not awake during therapeutic hypothermia and they are only a candidate for the treatment is they meet certain criteria in a physicians checklist.

"It's a combination of a gel pad and a cooling blanket that we use. The gel pad is placed over the skin and over the thighs and the chest and abdomen and it circulates water at a very cold temperature. On top of that we add a cooling blanket over the whole body except for the face," Ochoa said.

The cooling device can regulate a person's body to a very specific temperature, usually between 32 and 34 degrees Celsius during therapeutic hypothermia.

"A lot of people remember the NFL player who they threw in a bucket of ice when he injured his spinal cord and now that player is beginning to walk," Ochoa said. "It's the same kind of process, you're trying to limit the damage and literally freeze it where its at so it doesn't get out of hand."

It takes several hours to lower the body temperature and then they are left at that temperature for several more hours. The re-warming process takes hours more so the patient's total time on the device can be around 48 hours. While on the machine, the patient is closely monitored around the clock by a team including cardiologists and critical care nurses. Munson is now seeing an increased need for therapeutic hypothermia.

"We just purchased a new device, a second device because we've had times where unfortunately more than 1 person has a cardiac arrest and may need the device," Ochoa said.

But before they ever get to the hospital, surrounding bystanders can play the most important role in saving someone's life.

"These patients don't get to the Arctic Sun machine unless somebody provided them adequate CPR and got that heart restarted," Ochoa said.

As part of National Heart Month, Munson is offering one-on-one cardiovascular risk assessments. To learn if you're at risk for heart disease, get a heart screening this February. For more information, visit their website.