Family Health: Portable EKG program speeds heart attack treatment

Montanans often pride themselves in being self-reliant, especially folks in rural areas. That’s usually a good thing, but in one case it can be a big problem – when you’re having a heart attack. “Eighty-six percent of people in Montana with heart attack symptoms don’t call 911,” says Joani Hope, director of Mission: Lifeline Montana. “Instead, they arrive at the hospital emergency department in a private vehicle.”

Mission: Lifeline is a nationwide program that aims to improve outcomes for people with heart attacks, and a big part of that is to convince them to call 911. It’s all about time – heart attacks block circulation to part of your heart, and the quicker blood flow is restored the better your chances for recovery. While driving to the emergencydepartment can seem faster than calling 911, it’s usually not. And thanks to Mission: Lifeline, emergency medical services personnel can administer some treatments before you get to the hospital.

It works like this. When you feel chest pain, or other heart attack warning symptoms, you call 911 immediately. As soon as the ambulance arrives, the EMS responders use a 12-lead EKG machine – provided through the efforts of Mission: Lifeline – to check your heart and transmit the results to the appropriate hospital. Doctors at the hospital read the EKG and talk to the EMS team to evaluate your condition and get ready to treat the precise type of heart attack you’re having. In some cases, doctors advise the EMS team to administer clot-busting medicines called thrombolytics right away.

Once your ambulance arrives at the hospital, your treatment is streamlined. Most heart attack patients need a heart catheterization, or “cath,” to identify blocked arteries, which are then opened immediately with a procedure called angioplasty. This is the gold standard for treating heart attacks, and calling 911 gets you there much faster.

The portable EKG units that transmit your information to the hospital, cutting your time to treatment, are courtesy of Mission: Lifeline. This program uses private grant money and contributions to buy the EKG units for emergency services agencies, and to train personnel to use them. They also educate health care providers about the latest treatment guidelines, and promote cooperation between hospitals and EMS agencies. For example, Mission: Lifeline helps hospitals analyze heart attack cases that arrive by ambulance. Hospitals can then work with the ambulance crews to explore how the process can be improved.

While doctors, EMS crews and Mission: Lifeline are all working to improve treatment for heart attack, you still need to do your part. If you have heart attack symptoms, don’t take time to feed the horses or pick up the kids from school. Call 911 right away if you have:
  • Chest pain or discomfort. It can feel like pressure or squeezing, and it may come and go.
  • Upper body pain or discomfort. You can have this in your shoulders, stomach, back, neck or jaw, with or without chest pain.
  • Shortness of breath. You may have trouble getting your breath along with the chest discomfort.
  • Other symptoms that may accompany chest pain or discomfort that also signal a heart attack. They include light-headedness, nausea and vomiting, sweating, or cold, clammy skin and anxiety.

A large grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust has placed portable EKG machines with most EMS agencies in Montana, but there’s still work to be done. Twenty agencies are still waiting for one of these lifesaving machines. You can help by contributing to Mission: Lifeline Montana to help fund this effort. Contact Peggy Owen at or 406-220-2464 to donate.