What it Looks Like: Cardiac Arrest

This article is a quasi-cross-post from the website of our good friend Brandon Oto at EMS Basics. He’s been gracious enough to allow us to adapt the original post from his What it Looks Like series over here. We suggest that you go check out the work he does on his site; it’s the epitome of the quality content even a solo blogger can put together in the world of EMS 2.0 and FOAM. (Update 3/30/2017: Brandon now writes at critcon.org; it’s amazing, of course).

R-on-T into V-fib

We all know the fundamentals of Basic Life Support (BLS), a lot of us have taken Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS), and some among us have even accrued a enviable collection of other advanced resuscitation course merit badges. In spite of that, healthcare workers of all fields, training, and experience can stumble when it comes to that most fundamental of steps in the CPR algorithm: recognizing cardiac arrest.

We have assembled some of the best videos available on YouTube that display the physical signs you will encounter when a patient experienced sudden cardiac arrest right in front of you. Thankfully most, but not all, of the patients depicted recovered, and we owe a huge debt to the patients and their families who allowed the footage to be released.

This post isn’t meant to be a critique of the way the codes were managed or how well compressions were performed; we just want to examine what it looks like when a person experiences cardiac arrest so that you can recognize it immediately.

[To save you time all of the videos link to a point just prior to the patient arresting, but we still suggest watching the surrounding  footage.]

The Chris Solomon Rescue

Chris Solomon arrived to his morning shift as a dispatcher with the Yorkshire Air Ambulance feeling a bit unwell. He began to develop chest pain and thankfully his colleagues were there to assess him, perform a 12-lead ECG, and recognize that he was experiencing a STEMI. This entire video is an absolute must-see but take special note of the events surrounding his cardiac arrest.

You’ll note that at exactly 2:18 in the video Chris goes into a V-fib cardiac arrest. There’s no giant display, he just sort of nods off. If you listen closely you can also hear agonal respirations.

As the crew lowers him to the ground you’ll notice that he immediately begins posturing and displaying the kind of movements that we often associate with seizures. Even as they begin CPR his arms are still moving but make no mistake, and the medics certainly didn’t hesitate, Chris is in cardiac arrest. Even through the first and second defibrillation he maintains his posturing and agonal respirations.

As we see here is not uncommon for a patient to be moving and breathing with their eyes open during a sudden cardiac arrest if high-quality CPR is started early. It is certainly unsettling to perform CPR on someone who seems to be looking at you, but it’s becoming more common and it means that the good-quality CPR is being performed.

This is an amazing save and these providers set a high bar for running a resuscitation, even as it catches them completely off guard in their own dispatch station.

“Diagnosed Seizure”

Syncope vs. seizure — at times it is nearly impossible to differentiate the two. That is, unless you have the patient hooked up to a cardiac monitor and video EEG.

This is the case of a 25-year-old female who was referred to a video EEG unit for workup and differentiation of a seizure disorder that was diagnosed eight years prior. When startled she would experience episodes of anxiety and lightheadedness with palpitations before becoming unconscious. One of these episodes was caught while in the video EEG unit. The bottom line displayed on the monitor is her EKG.

This video is hard to watch but that’s a good thing; it means that you’re not comfortable watching someone in cardiac arrest not receive immediate CPR. To ease your mind a bit I will tell you ahead of time that she had a full recovery.

At 0:38 in the video the patient goes into torsades de pointes. She begins to feel symptoms and rings her call bell.

She soon becomes unresponsive and begins hyperventilating. This is cardiac arrest and you are seeing very pronounced agonal respirations.

The unit staff, used to seeing and assessing seizures and having been informed that this is what her “seizures” look like, arrive and begin their seizure assessment. Unfortunately there is no cardiac monitor in the room and they do not routinely check pulses on their seizure patients.

At 2:10 she becomes fully apneic except for the occasional agonal breath. Her EEG also shows a flat-line, indicating a cessation of brain activity. More staff arrive and place her in the recovery position and at about 2:23 she spontaneously reverts to normal sinus.

After this event her TdP was recognized and she was diagnosed with a variant of long-QT syndrome, though her resting EKG only had a QTc of 430-480 ms. She chose not to receive an ICD at that time but responded to medical therapy and is apparently doing well.

This case emphasizes the importance of considering cardiac arrest in anyone presenting with a “seizure.” It also shows that humans can exhibit agonal respirations for a surprisingly long amount of time after cardiac arrest, even with no detectable brain activity on an EEG.

Hotel Arrest

This older video, shot for the TLC show “Paramedics,” shows EMS responding to a patient at a local hotel with a chief complaint of chest pain.

Soon after EMS arrival, at about 2:05 in the video, he becomes unresponsive and begins exhibiting agonal respirations. Unsurprisingly, the medic’s first question is whether he has a history of seizures.

This is an extremely common mistake (see the last case).

As he lays back at 2:10 you can see the patient exhibiting posturing very similar to Chris Solomon’s. As they move him to the stretcher the respirations continue and the crew tries to talk to him, apparently still not realizing he is in cardiac arrest. It doesn’t take long to rectify that, however, and he is defibrillated back into a perfusing rhythm.

He was awake and responsive on arrival at the hospital so it seems likely that he had a good outcome.

Bondi Rescue

This video is from the Australian show “Bondi Rescue.” A local man was doing his usual swim at the beach when he started to experience classic cardiac chest pain and requested aid from the lifeguards. Trained in BLS, they called EMS and applied an AED because they recognized the high likelihood of the patient going into cardiac arrest before medics arrived.

At 1:14 in the video, just as the medics arrive on scene, the patient states that he feels like he is going to pass out and goes into cardiac arrest. As in the other cases, he keeps breathing at the start of his arrest and at 1:40 you can clearly see his left arm stiff and raised, in posturing almost exactly like Chris Solomon demonstrated.

Thankfully he responded well to defibrillation and had an excellent outcome. At the hospital they performed an aspiration thrombectomy of a culprit lesion in one of his coronary arteries with immediate resolution of his symptoms and he was well enough to visit the lifeguard station a short time later.

Basketball Collapse

This video is from the show “Heroes Among Us.” The patient involved was playing basketball with some friends when he suddenly collapsed on the court due to a sudden cardiac arrest. As you can see in the video, after his collapse he was still breathing and the folks nearby thought he was having a seizure. Hopefully you’re noticing a trend at this point.

A bystander, who happened to be a physician, was walking by and noticed the scene. At 2:20 in the video the patient was still breathing but the physician quickly checked a pulse, didn’t find one, and began immediate CPR.

Yet again, early recognition and early CPR probably contributed to this man having a good outcome and getting back to the point where he could return to playing basketball.

Diving Hypoxia

This isn’t true cardiac arrest but it’s a great example of exactly what cardiac arrest can sometimes look like so I had to include it. Plus, it’s pretty much the same mechanism that produces unconsciousness during arrest — global cerebral hypoxia — hence it looks the same, just with a different resolution.

This video shows a diver who experienced significant hypoxia and blacked-out. As you can see, he exhibits pronounced agonal respirations and posturing-type movements that could easily be confused for a seizure.

In this case, after breathing air for a few seconds, he quickly returned back to baseline, just as a typical syncope patient recovers after falling flat.

Hank Gathers

This is a hard case to discuss. First, it’s only video on our list so far that shows someone who died from their sudden cardiac arrest. Second, we won’t get into the specifics of how his resuscitation was handled, but if you look into Hank Gathers’ story you’ll find that a number of factors aligned that really set him up for a bad outcome.

One factor visible here is that his cardiac arrest was not recognized for a significant amount of time, despite having a known history of malignant arrhythmias.

At 0:37 in the video you see Hank Gathers collapse. He is in cardiac arrest but clearly breathing and exhibiting sporadic muscle movements. After a few seconds he even manages to sit up but quickly collapses back to the court and exhibits seizure-like activity. This ceases a short time later and a couple of minutes after his collapse he is taken off the court, having not yet received any CPR.

Anthony Van Loo

This case has a good outcome. Anthony Van Loo was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (the same condition that killed Hank Gathers) but was able to resume play after receiving an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD). This video shows Anthony, in the top-center of frame, experiencing a sudden cardiac arrest on the field. After a few seconds his ICD shocks him back into a normal rhythm and he recovers almost immediately.

This case emphasizes both how quickly and innocuously sudden cardiac arrest can strike (Anthony had no prodrome and showed no readily apparent signs of life on hitting the ground) and how well patients can recover with prompt defribrillation.

This is exactly what we are attempting to replicate in our patients who collapse without an ICD, using CPR to buy time until the defibrillation can arrive.

Miguel Garcia

Another footballer, Miguel Garci­a, also collapsed during a match in sudden cardiac arrest. In the video below you can see him in the far-left background at the 0:18 mark when he starts jogging and suddenly falls to the ground.

Thankfully he also had a good outcome and made a full recovery. Sadly, there are many cases of soccer players experiencing cardiac arrest that were caught on camera (and many more that aren’t) who never recovered, and there is one more in particular we would like to discuss.

Antonio Puerta

One last tragic case with a very important lesson.

As in the past few videos, Antonio Puerta collapsed suddenly during a match. In this video you can see him crouching down before falling over unresponsive.

Soon after the arrival of his teammates and trainers he spontaneously recovered and was actually able to walk back to the locker room.

Syncope is a huge red-flag, especially when it occurs during exercise.

Benign causes of syncope and self-resolved cardiac arrest are undifferentiable from outward appearance. In this case Anthony Puerta experienced a sudden cardiac arrest that resolved on his own. Despite looking perfectly well, only a short time after walking himself back to the locker room he collapsed again and could not be resuscitated. The arrhythmias that he experienced were secondary to arrhytmogenic right ventricular dysplasia (ARVD).


It’s heavy work watching these sorts of videos but it’s important for what we do. Prompt recognition of cardiac arrest is the first link in the Chain of Survival and early CPR and defibrillation are absolutely vital to achieving good outcomes for these patients. Here’s a few final take-home points:

  1. Sudden cardiac arrest is just that — sudden — and can occur without warning.
  2. It is surprisingly difficult to differentiate seizures from early cardiac arrest.
  3. Sudden cardiac arrest that self-resolves is called syncope (H/T to Amal Mattu).
  4. It is nearly impossible to distinguish benign syncope from cardiac arrest until the patient recovers and a thorough history, examination, and workup can be performed.
  5. Any patient presenting with syncope or seizure needs, at the minimum, an EKG.

See also

High Performance CPR – Performance Not Protocol!


  • Paul says:

    Thank you!

  • Thank you for a great post, Vince and Brandon. This is such a valuable training aid to help teach recognition of SCA; and therefore, hopefully reduce the time to providing proper care for victims. H/T to the entire team on another outstanding piece of work.

  • Wow! Fantastically insightful videos that should be mandatory viewing for all health care providers. THANK YOU vince & Brandon for putting this together!

  • Jonathan Britton says:

    Great article! It’s nice to find out the background to those videos. A must see for all responders!

  • Don says:

    Excellent post, that’s what makes this the best EMS resource on the web.

  • Mark says:

    An excellent post, thanks. I was astounded to see the EEG/past seizure history case. I would never have believed you could have a ‘self resolved’ cardiac arrest! Perhaps I will give a smidge more attention when told by a bystander in the future that ” they did not have a pulse for a while” (I inwardly usually think, yes they were hypotensive but not pulseless).

  • Barry says:

    Thanks! Great info. I’m passing it along to my former paramedic instructors.

  • Ian Fudge says:

    this is really interesting because something similar happened to a patient as I sat them up in bed after delivering them to a community hospital in fact I even turned to his son and said “does dad suffer with epilepsy?” And then turned back and realised he wasn’t breathing

  • Erich says:

    Fantastic post, must see stuff for junior paramedics, medical students, residents and nurses that could potentially see cardiac arrest on a regular basis.

  • Tony says:

    Interesting videos and good for training. In the first one where they save Chris the compressions are too fast and too shallow.

  • Jose Lyons says:

    Wow, these are awesome videos here to show my providers when i am teaching my CPR/ ACLS courses. really great things to learn form the clips in SCA!!

  • MGrayRN says:

    Thank you for this.
    I lost my first patient yesterday and went searching to see if I could have done anything differently.
    The arrest was witnessed and intervention was immediate, but the patient did not survive.
    I am confident that everything that could have been done was done. Thank you.

  • stan wisniewski says:

    extremely interesting, what a great job the emt people do . there is nothing more important than saving lives STAN… 60 YEAR SURVIVOR my cardiac arrest date was on 12-17-1954

  • Rina Trowbridge says:

    great videos and refresher on cardiac arrest!!!! It is not always cut and dry, text book!!!

  • Chris Tinkham says:

    Thank you for this collection. As someone who has experienced my own crewmate having sudden cardiac arrest and the confusion with the breathing that followed, it has helped me understand a lot more. Prompt action really does save lives and 6 months later my crewmate went back to work.

  • Clare says:

    Thank you so much for theses videos, as a Hospital Nurse ,we don’t see how patient’s initially present in the field. I love your site & have learned from you.

  • Rachel says:

    Brilliant resource thank you for taking the time to do it.

  • kati says:

    This is a great resource. Thank you for putting this together for the public! It helps to be able to know how a sudden cardiac arrest looks to be able to respond promptly.

  • Kelly says:

    I was in a principals’ meeting when my wife (also a principal) went into sudden cardiac arrest. I was shocked on many levels and immediately started CPR while an AED was brought in. She survived, but I was always curious why she appeared to show signs of a seizure (posturing, etc) when she has no history of seizures. I have never been comfortable with that memory until seeing these examples. I now see that it can be a normal reaction to sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). Thank you!

    • Thank you for commenting! I’m glad that you stumbled across this article, and it means a lot to me that it was able to help you better understand what happened. I hope you and your wife are still healthy and well; it was, without a doubt, your quick actions in the face of shock and fear that saved her life. Take care,

      Vince DiGiulio

  • Doug says:

    This really cemented the reasoning behind obtaining an ekg on seizure or syncope and why any syncopated episode during exercise can be an ominous sign. Thank you.

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