Would you know what to do, besides call 911, if someone near you seemed to be showing signs of a pulmonary embolism?
After all, a PE can kill in minutes.
“Sudden onset of shortness of breath and chest pain are hallmarks of pulmonary embolism,” says Seyed-Mojtaba Gashti, MD, a board certified vascular surgeon with Broward Health Medical Center in Florida.
Another symptom may be coughing (including with blood).
“If you just had major surgery and you are at home and experience these symptoms, especially if one of your legs is also swollen, this would be a PE unless proven otherwise.
“Of course there are numerous other causes in a post-op patient with these symptoms—pneumonia, atelectasis, cardiac issues, CHF, etc., but a PE has to be on top of the differential and you need to call 9-1-1.”
But is there anything else that you, as the layperson, can do to help this individual with the suspected pulmonary embolism?
Dr. Gashti says, “Unfortunately, if you are not in a hospital, perhaps not a whole lot.”
Perhaps you’ve viewed a scene in a fictitious TV drama where it appears that someone with medical training thinks a collapsed person is suffering from a pulmonary embolism.
The bystander then takes a sharp object, incises the chest somewhere and inserts a makeshift medical device (such as a drinking straw), and performs crude surgery.
Dr. Gashti explains, “The situation you are describing on a TV show sounds like treatment for a pneumothorax—collapsed lung, rather than a pulmonary embolism.
“With a collapsed lung, the problem is getting enough air to the lungs ,but a PE prevents blood from getting to the lungs from the right side of your heart. So placing a ‘tube’ in your chest would not work.
“Other possibility is that they were talking about a ‘tracheostomy’ tube through the middle of your neck into your trachea to ventilate the patient.
“But the general public should not attempt this since there can be more harm than good if you do not know what you are doing.
“So the best thing the general public can do if they suspect PE is to call 9-1-1 and to provide basic CPR if patient is unconscious.”
We may have to wait several decades before “Star Trek medical technology” allows a bystander to whip out the pulmonary embolus dissolution kit from their handbag and apply it to the collapsed victim.
In the meantime, know the warning signs of a pulmonary embolism.
If someone is at risk, check their legs several times a day for swelling.
Dr. Gashti specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of vascular disease including abdominal and aortic aneurysm.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.