ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- For 25 minutes on April 12, Ral Abbott's fate was in his brother Lou Abbott's hands -- literally.
Abbott, 69, a part-time resident of Velarde, was working on a drywall project when he fell off a ladder, hitting his head on the way down. He had suffered a cardiac arrest. After a worker called 911, his brother did chest compressions until emergency personnel arrived.
"I have my husband now because Lou was there, and thank God he was," says Ral Abbott's wife, Harriet Abbott, a nurse who was pruning in the couple's vineyard. "Lou is the real hero."
The Abbotts' dramatic story highlights the need for hands-only CPR, the new technique that moves away from CPR with rescue breaths and focuses on keeping the heart pumping with compressions.
If someone collapses, take two fingers and press between the ribs, says Dr. Barry Ramo, New Mexico Heart Institute cardiologist who is also medical editor for KOAT and the Albuquerque Journal's Live Well magazine columnist. If there is no response, call 911, then do chest compressions until emergency medical technicians arrive. During compressions, pump 100 times a minute to the beat of the Bee Gees' "Staying Alive."
"The critical feature of keeping someone alive is compressing the chest continuously and not stopping until paramedics get there," he says.
To teach those skills to the public, Ramo developed a campaign called Project Heart Start. This year, the program will be held in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Gallup, Farmington, Roswell, Hobbs, Silver City, Clovis, Portales, Alamagordo and Las Cruces.
A 2010 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that survival for out-of-hospital cardiac arrests rose in Arizona when bystanders used chest compressions alone. With no CPR, 5 percent of patients survived. Nearly 8 percent survived after conventional CPR and more than 13 percent survived with hands-only CPR. Traditional CPR may delay the most critical part, which is maintaining circulation, Ramo says.
The simpler approach means people are more likely to take action. People do traditional CPR about 30 percent of the time and about 5 percent do it correctly, says Dr. Sean Mazer, a cardiac electrophysiologist at the New Mexico Heart Institute in Albuquerque, who inserted Abbott's pacemaker and defibrillator. People often fear they will contract an illness from mouth-tomouth, he says.
Lou Abbott had not done chest compressions since he worked as an emergency medical technician briefly in 1978. Luckily, he says, "you don't really ever forget it."
Ral Abbott, who visited the New Mexico Heart Institute on April 30 with his wife and brother for a routine follow-up visit, says he remembers climbing a ladder to install drywall on the ceiling.
"And on my way down, I just collapsed," he says. "And that's my last memory."
A cardiac arrest, also called sudden death, occurs when the heart stops beating as though the power was turned off, Mazer says. It is unlike a heart attack, which is a "plumbing" problem caused when plaque builds up in arteries, causing scar tissue and preventing blood flow to the heart.
In cases like Ral Abbott's, the heart is "too good to die, but they have this electrical event which nobody can predict," Ramo says.
Ral Abbott is an "iron man" in good health, says Harriett Abbott. He did have an irregular heartbeat but no symptoms prior to his cardiac arrest. The couple were high school sweethearts who have been married 49 years and live much of the year in California.
Harriett Abbott says she is grateful for everyone who helped her husband and only hopes his experience will encourage others to learn to do chest compressions.
"The take home is that preparation matters," Mazer says, adding that learning to resuscitate another person should be a civic duty.
Without a consistent pulse for 25 minutes, Ral Abbott is lucky not to have brain damage, Ramo says. It is also unusual to perform compressions for so long.
"What's amazing is that (Lou Abbott) did it for 25 minutes," he says. "What it shows is the super-human strength people have when they're confronted with these crises. I've never seen anything like it."
When emergency personnel arrived at Abbott's home, they shocked him and gave him epinephrine before putting him in an ambulance. He was airlifted to St. Vincent's Hospital in Santa Fe, then transported to the New Mexico Heart Hospital in Albuquerque. He is recovering well, Mazer says.
"I would expect Ral to be back to work on the vineyard within a month," he says.