In 2014, when she was just 24 years old, Brittany Williams went into cardiac arrest in a Times Square restaurant. Two bystanders who were eye doctors gave her CPR until paramedics arrived and took her to the hospital.
But many women are not as fortunate: The top killer of women is heart disease, which is responsible for 1 in every 3 women’s deaths each year, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
Nobody was more shocked to learn this than Brittany herself.
“I just thought heart disease affected the elderly or the heavy smokers or the heavy drinkers, not somebody that's running five miles a day and eating healthy,” Brittany says. “But heart disease does not discriminate.”
Research also shows that women are less likely than men to receive CPR. According to a 2017 study, only 39% of women received CPR from bystanders in public compared to 45% of men. The result? Men’s odds of surviving a cardiac event were 23% higher than women’s.
Brittany now devotes time to advocating for CPR awareness. “It’s just such an easy life-saving technique — why aren't we shouting from the rooftops that everyone should learn CPR?” she says. “People lose their lives every day due to somebody not knowing CPR.”
That’s why the AHA’s Go Red for Women campaign and its National Wear Red Day on Feb. 3 highlight heart health awareness — and the importance of learning CPR.
“We’re asking everybody to have at least one person in your house know how to do CPR,” says Dr. Comilla Sasson, Vice President, Health Science for Healthcare Business Solutions with the AHA.
“Nearly 3 out of 4 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests are going to happen within your own home with somebody that you know,” Dr. Sasson says. “The life you're going to save is likely going to be somebody that you love.”
CVS Health®, the national sponsor of Go Red for Women since 2017, continues its support for the cause this year with the goal of furthering education and awareness.
“Year after year, we continue to see cardiovascular disease as the leading cause of death in women, claiming more lives than all cancers combined,” says Walter D. Woods, Vice President of Philanthropy. “That’s why our support of Go Red for Women and the American Heart Association’s relentless pursuit of advancing lifesaving research and education and the importance of learning CPR — is so critical.”
Saving women’s lives
CPR is used in cases of cardiac arrest, which is different than a heart attack — a critical distinction to understand when responding to an event. “Heart attack is when you have something that blocks one of the vessels of the heart, causing that part of your heart to lose blood flow,” explains Dr. Sasson. “Cardiac arrest is actually your heart stopping.”
CPR is like giving the person an external heart.
“When you're pushing on the chest, you're pushing oxygenated blood to the brain and to other vital organs as you're waiting for emergency medical services to arrive. CPR buys that person time in terms of brain and vital organ function.”
Sharell Weeams understands the value of that extra time — and how lucky she was to receive help.
In November 2021, Sharell went into sudden cardiac arrest after competing in a swing dance contest in Dallas. A friend who is a nurse, along with two other nurses in attendance, rushed to give her CPR.
“A lot of people are afraid to perform CPR on women just because they're afraid that they might be accused of touching someone inappropriately,” Sharell says.
“So, we have even less chance of survival if we have cardiac arrest out of the hospital, and it really is the difference between life and death,” she adds. “I would not be here if it weren’t for the fact that someone stepped up and took the lead on performing CPR.”
Another reason women are less likely to receive CPR might be because of myths that they are less likely to have heart problems and overdramatize incidents, according to the AHA.
“People may think that the woman has passed out, or that something else is wrong. These delays in recognition can dramatically impact survival.”
Be the beat
The AHA hope people will be inspired to learn CPR during American Heart Month in February, which is themed “Be the Beat.”
“CPR is so easy to learn,” Dr. Sasson reminds us, and the AHA provides short videos that anyone can watch and share with loved ones — including a simpler “Hands-Only” technique for teens and adults that involves just two steps.
To help get the word out about heart health, CVS Health will offer no-cost screenings during February at its MinuteClinic locations nationwide to help women understand their risk for and ways to prevent cardiovascular disease, says Angela Patterson, Retail Health Chief Nurse Practitioner Officer for CVS Health.
“These efforts are part of our larger commitment to making women's health care more accessible, equitable and personalized, including providing expanded services at MinuteClinic®,” she says.
The company will also host an in-store fundraising campaign for customers to support the AHA.
“I’m alive today because somebody did know CPR,” Sharell confirms. “It's just so important for everybody to learn because you could be anywhere and somebody could drop right in front of you. If you know CPR, you can help save that person's life.”