Ask the Doctors by Eve Glazier, M.D. and Elizabeth Ko, M.D

Becoming Trained in CPR Just May Save a Life

Dear Doctor: A woman in the mall near our home collapsed and wasn't breathing. A shopper performed CPR until the paramedics showed up. Later, my friends and I realized that none of us could have helped her. Should we get trained in CPR?

Dear Reader: Only a small percentage of the population in the United States knows how to perform CPR, so the woman you and your friends saw was lucky. As you can probably guess, our answer is yes; learning proper CPR technique is a very good idea.

More than 350,000 people per year in the U.S. suffer from sudden cardiac arrest, which is when the heart abruptly stops beating. Although heart arrhythmias and heart disease are the major causes of sudden cardiac arrest, heart function may also stop due to near drowning, smoke inhalation, asthma attack, poisoning or even a severe allergic reaction.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, really does make a difference. It consists of two separate components -- chest compression and mouth-to-mouth rescue breathing. (According to the latest American Heart Association guidelines, only individuals who are trained in CPR should attempt rescue breathing.)

When someone goes into cardiac arrest and stops breathing, the first few minutes are critical. Studies show that the survival rate of someone in cardiac arrest can double or triple when prompt and high-quality CPR is performed.

So what happens when you perform CPR?

Your body needs oxygen to survive. When your heart suddenly stops beating, the biological chain of events that provides you with oxygen also stops. Without that oxygen, cells begin to die. Brain damage can occur in just 4 or 5 minutes, and death in 8 to 10 minutes.

The purpose of CPR is to keep oxygenated blood flowing to the victim's brain and other vital organs. This is done by chest compressions, in which you're essentially providing an artificial heartbeat. Although by itself CPR will not restart someone's heart, it can help the person survive until medical aid arrives.

When shown on TV or in films, CPR may look easy. However, where and how you place your hands on a victim's chest to perform compressions is very important. So is the rate and depth at which you press on the chest, as well as exactly how and for how long you release.

That's why it's critical to get certified training. Classes, which are offered throughout the nation, are interesting and easy. The American Red Cross offers classes, and the American Heart Association (AHA) has a list of other training centers.

You'll learn proper CPR technique and may also get trained in the use of an automated external defibrillator, or A.E.D.

Although attending in-person class with fellow students and a mannequin to practice on is optimal, a video on the AHA's updated method of hands-only CPR is available online.

A final thought: Between 70 and 80 percent of sudden cardiac arrests occur in or near the home. Why not make CPR certification a family, neighborhood or even community project? Everyone will be just that much safer.

(Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and primary care physician at UCLA Health.)

(Send your questions to, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095.)