Each year, approximately 400,000 people suffer from a STEMI, or ST-elevated myocardial infarction. STEMI is the deadliest form of heart attack, because it is caused by a complete blockage of an artery. As the heart muscle is deprived of oxygen from the blood, it begins to die. Left untreated, a STEMI can quickly cause heart damage and death.
Diagnosing and Treating STEMI
STEMI are not treated the same way as other heart attacks, so timely diagnosis is critical. If a patient suspects heart attack, it’s important to call 911 right away. The only way to distinguish a STEMI from a non-STEMI heart attack is to administer an electrocardiogram (ECG). If possible, EMS personnel will administer the ECG immediately, and route the patient to a hospital that is capable of treating STEMI.
STEMI are treated by clot-busting medications, or by a set of interventions called PCI (percutaneous coronary interventions). Clot-busting drugs may be administered instead of, or in addition to, an angioplasty or other PCI. In some cases, the STEMI team can deliver the medications directly to the blockage, speeding their impact.
The most commonly used PCI are angioplasty and stenting. During an angioplasty, the cardiologist inserts a balloon-tipped catheter into the patient’s heart. When the catheter is close to the blockage, the balloon is inflated, dislodging the blockage from the artery. Since this process can damage the artery walls, the doctor will often place a stent in the artery. The stent is a thin mesh tube that holds the artery open and provides support while it heals.
Who Can Treat STEMI
Although most hospitals are well equipped to handle non-STEMI heart attacks, only about 25% have the necessary infrastructure for treating STEMI. That’s because STEMI treatment requires very specialized knowledge, an expert team, and a cardiac catheterization lab for performing PCI.
Meanwhile, STEMI must be treated quickly. Both the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association have launched initiatives to encourage hospitals to treat STEMI in 90 minutes or less. Some hospitals like Regional Medical Center-Bayonet Point consistently surpass that benchmark, delivering STEMI care in an average of less than 70 minutes. That translates into higher survival rates and less heart damage for patients.