Can Philanthropy Beat Heart Attacks?

In the past, heart attacks were near-unstoppable killers. During a cardiac event, there was very little EMS personnel and even doctors could do for a victim. Of course, times have changed. Now heart attacks—at least minor ones—are survivable events, but the big ones, like ST-elevated myocardial infarctions, or STEMIs, are still killers. Only 10 percent of patients survive the sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) that is often caused by a STEMI—and those are not good odds. Two determined funders are working to change that, pioneering new and better cardiac care solutions throughout the Midwest.

The two initiatives are HeartRescue, funded by Medtronic Philanthropy, which is working on improvements to SCA care in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, and Mission: Lifeline, a Helmsley Charitable Trust-funded collaboration with the American Heart Association, which targets STEMI survival at the emergency level. (We wrote earlier about that initiative here.) The two programs have geography and the end goal of saving lives in common, but that’s where the similarities end. Beyond that, these projects explore different approaches to a common problem.

Though HeartRescue, funded by Medtronic, is working solely in the Twin Cities, it has a broad scope. In their crosshairs: sudden cardiac arrest, which is a difficult and mercurial problem to tackle. Their approach seeks improvements in awareness and care at multiple response points: at bystander, pre-hospital, and hospital levels. The goal is improving the odds for those suffering from SCA. So a big chunk of their project is outreach—PR, community education, forums, etc. Meanwhile, HeartRescue is funding research into the mechanics of SCA that will help inform the recommendations it puts forth. Medtronic put up $2.8 million for the initiative in 2013.

Mission: Lifeline, funded by Helmsley, is more empirical. It has a specific objective, and a lot more money behind it, but its influence is spread far and wide, over six states and counting. Its goal: to get very expensive but very important lifesaving equipment into the kind of long-distance ambulances that may have to drive two hours into the badlands or the black heart of a prairie blizzard to bear someone to the hospital. The kind of ambulances aboard which STEMI sufferers currently fare badly. Providing EMTs with electrocardiograms to identify the blockage enables them to draft a treatment plan and send images to the hospital before the patient’s arrival. Lifeline began in South Dakota in 2010, and has since spread to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Montana. Helmsley has so far made a single three-year grant per state, in amounts ranging from $8.5 for Minnesota to $4.1 million for Nebraska.

Peeking behind the curtain of these initiatives reveals a prevailing truth about health philanthropy: Funding research and outreach to surround a problem and take it down is often a hard and messy process, but when a solution is identified, putting it into place can be swift and gratifying. Helmsley’s work rests on the STEMI research of others who’ve come before, whereas Medtronic’s project is more ground-level. We can only hope it will someday reveal the same sort of practicable solutions that underpin the Lifeline project.