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Sen. Scott White 1970-2011
"There's no Susan G. Komen for Sudden Cardiac Arrest," Dr. Jeanne Poole , director of the University of Washington's Arrhythmia Service

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Doctors: Sen. Scott White's Death Shows Desperate Need for Education on Sudden Cardiac Arrest

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Sen. Scott White 1970-2011
"There's no Susan G. Komen for Sudden Cardiac Arrest," Dr. Jeanne Poole, director of the University of Washington's Arrhythmia Service and Electrophysiology Laboratory, tells Seattle Weekly. "And there should be."

Poole says that the sudden death of Washington state Senator Scott White was likely preventable, and that the dangers of what killed him are often ignored by the press and the public.

UPDATE: Dr. Poole says it's important to note that Sen. White's death could have only been prevented if he had had the problem diagnosed and treated beforehand. Not knowing if he had shown any symptoms ahead of time, however, it's difficult to say whether he ever would have known to get his heart checked in the first place.

White, 41, was found dead on Friday in a hotel room in Cle Elum, the reason: Sudden Cardiac Arrest due in part to an enlarged heart.

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Dr. Jeanne Poole
"With [Sen. White's] death no one is talking about Sudden Cardiac Death, we're hearing all about how he had this underlying problem of an enlarged heart. " Poole says. "Every single day, seven hundred to a thousand Americans die from Sudden Cardiac Arrest. But because it's sudden, and people don't go through rounds and rounds of chemotherapy and treatment for it, you know, it's tragic and unexpected so people move on with their lives, and don't have this emotional grassroots outpouring of support for educating people about it."

Poole explains that SCA is not like a typical heart attack, which is caused by a blood vessel or artery getting backed up. Instead, SCA is more of an "electrical problem" that happens when the heart's rhythm gets messed up.

Treating SCA when it happens requires someone being around to see it (witness the person collapse) and call 911, at which point medics can use an automated external defibrillator to, literally, shock the heart back to normal.

Treatment for people with a high risk of SCA often involves implanting a somewhat similar device (an implantable cardioverter defibrillator) inside the body. But access to such devices is too limited and education surrounding them is largely lacking, says Poole.

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Dr. Darryl Wells
Dr. Darryl Wells, a cardiac electrophysiologist at Swedish Medical Center echoes Poole's notion that SCA is a vastly underemphasized problem in the United States.

He also says that there is a good simple rule to remember when it comes to knowing your risk factor for SCA. "The classic buzzword is know your EF (ejection fraction)," Wells says. "It's the single biggest risk stratifier to knowing your risk--a normal rate being 55 to 60, abnormal being less than 40, certainly less than 35."

Poole also notes that knowing one's family history with regard to heart disease is crucial to guarding against this sudden, silent killer. Also, like anything related to heart health, healthy living (i.e. not smoking, exercising regularly, not eating junk food all the time) is highly recommended.

"Individuals need to not hesitate to see physician for things like unexplained tiredness, any chest discomforts, heart palpitations, fainting spells," Poole says. "The take-home message is that we need to increase Sudden Cardiac Arrest awareness so that when it is witnessed a call is made and an electronic difibulator is used. And we need better management of risk factors; Americans taking charge of their own health care, and not ignoring symptoms."

Some other facts about SCA, according to the Heart Rhythm Foundation are:

--Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) is a leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for an estimated 325,000 deaths each year

--In SCA, the heart abruptly and unexpectedly ceases to function (cardiac arrest). It is an "electrical problem" caused by a heart rhythm disorder called Ventricular Fibrillation (VF). In SCA, the heart is no longer able to pump blood to the rest of the body.

--SCA is NOT a heart attack - a condition technically known as a myocardial infarction (MI). MI is a "plumbing problem" in which a blockage in a blood vessel interrupts the flow of blood to the heart causing an "infarct" - an area of dead heart muscle. SCA may, however, occur in association with a heart attack.

--VF occurs when the electrical signals that control the pumping ability (contractions) of the lower chambers of the heart (ventricles) suddenly become rapid and chaotic. The ventricles begin to quiver and can not longer pump blood from the heart to the rest of the body.

--SCA is NOT a random event. Although it may occur in outwardly healthy people, most victims DO have heart disease or other health problems, often without being aware of it.

Without emergency help, SCA leads to death within minutes.

--Victims of cardiac arrest can be saved if a defibrillator device is immediately available to deliver an electric shock to restore the heart to its normal rhythm.

--People who are at high risk for SCA may be treated with implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs), devices that are implanted under the skin. ICDs monitor the heart's rhythm and automatically deliver a short, high-energy shock when the individual develops an irregular heart rhythm that may lead to SCA.

--Studies have shown that ICDs are the best way to prevent cardiac arrest in certain groups of patients who are at high risk.

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