Pat O’Malley never thought her athletic 17-year-old daughter would die from sudden cardiac arrest. In fact, she didn’t recognize that Maggie’s life was in danger one night when she found her unresponsive, unconscious, and apparently gasping for breath. Minutes passed before CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) was performed.
Pat later learned that gasping, also called agonal breathing, is relatively common in victims of cardiac arrest. Since her daughter’s death, Pat has become a CPR instructor and is now sharing her story to help educate and save lives.
“I don’t want people to have to go through the pain or guilt of losing a loved one because they weren’t sure what to do,” Pat explains. “Get trained in CPR, and don’t be afraid to act if you see someone who is unresponsive and gasping. It’s critical that you act quickly—seconds count.”
Gasping indicates that the brain is functioning, yet it is not normal respiration. If someone collapses and is unresponsive, the American Heart Association recommends calling 911 and getting an AED (automated external defibrillator), if available. Then, check whether the victim is breathing normally. If not, start CPR immediately.
Agonal breathing may also be mistaken for snorting, moaning, or labored breathing. For a video reenactment of how agonal breathing may look and sound, visit americanheart.org/agonal.
Neighborhood Heart Watch, the brainchild of Dr. Douglas Zipes, is a grass roots initiative to place AEDs in homes and neighborhoods.