Why wouldn’t you call 911 for heart attack symptoms?

by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters

The other evening, I was out for our regular pre-sushi walk with my friend, Patty.  She told me a dramatic story of a co-worker whose husband had just suffered a heart attack. Turns out that this co-worker had attended one of my workplace presentations about heart health at their office just a couple months ago, yet when her husband phoned her at work to tell her of his distressing cardiac symptoms, she did not call 911 for him (as I continually harp on to my audiences!)  Instead, she left work and drove all the way home to pick him up, loaded him into her car, and then drove him all the way back into town to the hospital.

When Patty heard this story from her co-worker later, she wondered:

“Why didn’t you call 911 for your husband like Carolyn told us to do?”

But it seems that this co-worker, like many of us, had acted purely on impulse: just get home and get him to the E.R.  Unfortunately, her decision to drive hubby to the E.R. instead of calling 911 for help is not at all uncommon. 

For example, an Irish study(1) published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing found that:

  • only 63%  percent of women patients called an ambulance during a heart attack
  • only 60% of men patients called an ambulance
  • many of the others said they were too embarrassed to call 911
  • 4% of men and 3% of women used public transport
  • 33% of women and 29% of men said they had been driven to the hospital by a friend or family member
  • one in 14 men having a heart attack made the dangerous decision to drive themselves to hospital
  • only 1% of women having an attack drove themselves, but the study found that women took five times as long as men (14 hours vs. 2.8 hours) to seek emergency hospital treatment after their symptoms first started
  • even after their symptoms became ‘unbearable’, it still took women 3.1 hours to get there, compared with 1.8 hours for men

And a Canadian study presented at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress in Toronto showed similar alarming statistics.(2) Cardiologist Dr. Madhu Natarajan at Hamilton Health Sciences Centre reported:

“We’re talking about patients who have full-blown severe pain, yet they’re trying to find their own way to hospital. Some even take the bus.

“They are committing a mistake with potentially grave consequences – not to mention the risk to the public if they or their agitated family members are driving to hospital.” 

His study also found a considerable delay in receiving treatment once these people finally arrived in the Emergency Department.

For example, those who did not arrive by ambulance waited on average 86 minutes in the E.R. before receiving a clot-dissolving drug compared to 26-52 minutes on average for those brought in by ambulance. The moral of these stats: 

Call 911 for an ambulance when you think you’re having a heart attack.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 5.06.28 PM

But here are more reasons why Patty’s co-worker made a decision that could have been a fatal one for her hubby:

  • “Time equals Muscle”: treatments to restore blood/oxygen to the heart  must happen fast – find out why
  • By calling 911 and taking an ambulance to hospital, recovery chances are substantially increased
  • Paramedics can do diagnostic procedures on the spot and administer lifesaving treatment en route to hospital, start an I.V., etc.
  • Paramedics can also radio ahead to the E.R. to warn hospital staff of an incoming emergency case

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   I wrote more about treatment-seeking delay in Chapter 2 of my new book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease (Johns Hopkins University, 2017). 


See also:

(1)  Sharon O’Donnell et al. In-hospital care pathway delays: gender and myocardial infarction.  Journal of Advanced Nursing. Volume 52, Issue 1, pages 14–21, October 2005
(2) Oral presentation of study by Madhu Natarajan at Canadian Cardiovascular Congress, Toronto, October 2008.


Q: Have you ever delayed calling 911 despite serious symptoms?





6 thoughts on “Why wouldn’t you call 911 for heart attack symptoms?

  1. But you should get help if they last for two weeks or more, or if they keep you from your relationships, your work, or your life.


  2. Had my family physician not sent me immediately to a cardiologist for an echocardiogram, I’m sure I would’ve gone on through my day thinking nothing of the “respiratory infection” I thought I had. I was subsequently checked in to a hospital and proceeded to have an aortic valve replacement and a double bypass. PLEASE realize the seriousness of heart disease and attack symptoms – you or someone you love needs as much time as possible to get to a professional. I’m thankful my family doc had enough sense not to let me out of his sight!


    1. You are very lucky to still be here, Dan! But I have a question: why would you have to see not one but two doctors first before going to the Emergency Room? That decision involves making appointments, waiting for the appointments, sitting in the waiting room(s) to see the doctor(s), until FINALLY you get sent to hospital for major open heart surgery! “Time Equals Muscle” during a heart attack. You could have been quite dead by the time you made it to the ER. How long was the delay between the time your doctor decided to refer you to a cardiologist and the time you were admitted to hospital?

      Why not call 911 immediately?


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