Heart Experts: Don't Think, Just Do CPR

An incident that made headlines Monday seemed shocking: An assisted living facility worker refused to give CPR to an elderly woman who had collapsed on the floor.

And yet it's an all-too-common situation, as private facilities worry about lawsuits and as people either assume that CPR won't save a fragile elderly person or fret about breaking a rib, experts said.

People often assume old people are less able to survive a heart attack, said Dr. Benjamin Abella, clinical director at the Center for Resuscitation Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

"We often have biases that the elderly may do worse or have more problems, but it's hard to say that in 2013," Abella told ABCNews.com. "Health clubs, gyms, malls are afraid of liability and would rather leave it to the medical professionals. The problem is … you don't have 10 minutes in cardiac arrest."

Cardiac arrest is the most time-sensitive disease that exists, Abella said. Every minute that passes and a stricken person gets no help, the chance of death increases by 10 percent to 15 percent, he said.

That means after 12 minutes - the time it often takes for an ambulance to arrive - the chance of survival is already "very, very low," Abella said.

Lorraine Bayless, 87, died later in the day on Feb. 26 after a Glenwood Gardens worker defied pleas of a 911 dispatcher to perform CPR. The worker cited a company policy that instructs Glenwood Gardens employees to call 911 and wait in if a resident is having a "health emergency."

While a bias persists that the elderly might fare worse after a heart attack, studies find that an active 80-year-old who plays tennis, say, can better recover from cardiac arrest than a bedridden 50-year-old on dialysis.

Injuring the patient also shouldn't be a worry, even with a very old person, said Dr. Benjamin Abraham, director of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at Ohio State University.

"With adequate or vigorous CPR, we may break a rib or two, but the benefit of doing that is to increase the likelihood of survival," he told ABCNews.com.

That's true even for tiny infants, Abella said.

"It's even harder to injure an infant because their ribs are very flexible," he said.

CPR is important because it acts like an artificial heart, pushing blood from the heart to vital organs, most essentially the brain, Abraham said.

People shouldn't worry if they haven't taken a CPR course, both experts said. Quick, strong, hand compression to the chest as soon as possible after cardiac arrest is far more important than breathing into a person's mouth, the American Heart Association now publicizes.

The rule of thumb is 100 compressions per minute, or the beat of the 1970s disco song "Stayin' Alive," the association instructs.

For a baby, a person should follow the same instructions as for an adult but use one thumb on top of another instead of the palm of a hand with another hand on top, Abraham said.

"People should do their best," Abella said. "Waiting for the ambulance is often not sufficient."