A Tale of Two Heart Attacks

Medical Author: Benjamin Wedro, MD, FAAEM
Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

Life isn't fair. The tales of Kelsey Grammer and Tim Russert show the two extremes when it comes to heart disease. Mr. Grammer had some chest pain, wandered into a hospital, found out that he had a heart attack myocardial infarction) and walks out a few days later. Mr. Russert has no particular chest pain, but drops dead because of his heart attack.

A heart attack means that part of the heart muscle has lost its blood supply, has died, and has been replaced by scar tissue. Injured heart muscle causes injured electrical systems and can lead to ventricular fibrillation, in which the heart jiggles instead of beats. No heart beat means no blood to the body, which leads to sudden cardiac death.

Sudden cardiac death doesn't really care if the heart attack was mild or not. The most common reason people die in the midst of a heart attack is due to an electrical short circuit caused by heart muscle that has been irritated.

In Mr. Russert's case, bystanders were ready to use an automatic external defibrillator (AED), but the paramedics arrived at the same time to deliver electrical shocks to the heart to treat the ventricular fibrillation. The treatment failed, and they were unable to reverse Mr. Russert's death.