February 06, 2017
Area(s) of Interest: Medical School Physician Leadership
From the second you’re born until the second you die, your heart is beating with you. Throughout history, cultures around the world recognized the heart’s significance. Aristotle deemed it the most important organ of the body, referring to it as “the seat of the soul.” Ancient Egyptians regarded the heart as the source of wisdom, emotions, memory, and personality.
The heart’s lore continues to this day: Every February we encounter heart-shaped greeting cards and chocolates. The symbol of the heart has been integrated into tattoos, t-shirts, jewelry, emojis — you name it. Even though the phrase “broken heart” isn’t a true medical diagnosis, everyone knows what you mean when you say it. The heart is almost as important culturally as it is physiologically.
Last summer, two of my medical school classmates and I decided to do a service project devoted to protecting the heart. Specifically, we wanted to educate patients about acute myocardial infarction (AMI), more commonly known as a heart attack. Of the more than 1 million people who die of a heart attack every year, about half die within an hour of their first symptoms and before they reach the hospital. Individuals who are medically underserved have even lower chances of survival. They may be less familiar with the signs and symptoms of heart attacks and may be more hesitant to seek treatment. Even if care is sought immediately, evidence suggests aspirin may increase survivability. In fact, chewable aspirin has been shown to reduce AMI mortality by 23 percent if taken within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms.
With these facts in mind, we developed our “Time is Heart” project, which was sponsored by the California Medical Association (CMA) Foundation’s Medical Student Grant Program. Our goals were twofold: first, we wanted to educate patients about the warning signs of heart attack; second, we wanted to explain the significance of taking chewable aspirin along with seeking emergency care. We put together “goodie bags” containing American Heart Association pamphlets and pill carrier key chains. We packed 150 of these “goodie bags” and distributed them at clinics and health fairs, many of which were attended by medically underserved patients. Each person who received a bag was given a two minute briefing on the signs and symptoms of heart attacks and the importance of seeking emergency care. They were also told that they could fill their keychain with a single dose of chewable aspirin to be taken after calling 9-1-1.
Due to confidentiality constraints, we will not know if any of these patients will end up using the resources we gave them. However, we were able to see first-hand the importance of patient education. Thanks to the symbolism of the heart, people know roughly where the heart is located and what it does. But they didn’t know much about cardiac pathology. We always opened our conversations by asking what the patients knew about heart attacks. Many of them were unsure of the signs and symptoms, or unsure if they should be considered a medical emergency. It quickly became clear to us that patient education must come before any interventions, if possible.
We are thankful that this experience allowed us to hone our communication skills with patients. We hope to carry the lessons we learned with us as we move forward in our medical careers.
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