Key Takeaways

    • It is normal (and expected) to experience new physical, emotional, and cognitive issues after cardiac arrest.
    • Your loved one may experience fatigue upon returning home, particularly after returning to work. This usually improves within months.
    • The survivor may develop feelings of anxiety, sadness, or PTSD. A mental health professional may be helpful in navigating these emotions.
    • Your loved one may feel overwhelmed when performing daily life tasks. Organizing them into to-do lists can be helpful and ease some of the associated anxiety.
Your loved one survived cardiac arrest… Now what?

One of the biggest challenges after surviving cardiac arrest is not knowing what to expect after leaving the hospital. Survivors have reported multiple symptoms that can occur as a result of this experience. Please keep in mind that it does not mean your loved one will experience all the symptoms listed here. We hope this information helps on the days that the survivor feels uncertain because a new symptom or challenge has arisen.

Physical issues

Your loved one might feel fatigued after leaving the hospital and will probably need help completing the tasks they used to do on their own (showering, doing chores, taking care of pets and children, climbing stairs, etc.). They may have muscle weakness, pain from procedures or chest compressions, or limited use of one or more of their limbs. The survivor might have been evaluated by rehabilitation therapists in the hospital and prescribed a rehab program, which they should follow as instructed. 

Your loved one should expect to need to take some time off work; going home is their first step to recovery, and it can be a very daunting and challenging time in their life and a close family member’s life. This is to be expected. Most survivors’ energy and physical limitations improve within months. 

Once the survivor returns to work, they may feel more fatigued than usual. We recommend taking it easy at first! They should listen to their body, and rest when they believe it’s needed; their brain, mind, and body are still healing from cardiac arrest, and it can take several months to recover.

Emotional issues

Cardiac arrest can, and most likely will, create some emotional issues and new emotional needs. Your loved one just went through a traumatic and emotionally taxing experience that very few people live to talk about (remember, only ~11% survive! They are part of such a small group). 

The survivor may develop some feelings of anxiety, fear, and sadness which may be new to them and extremely difficult to process and understand. Please know this: it is very normal to feel this way! Studies have shown that a significant number of survivors will experience one or several of these symptoms at some point in their recovery. Yes, they are expected. Your loved one may experience them right after returning home, or even several months later, once they return to their daily routine. 

Unexpected situations may trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) including these negative feelings and intrusive thoughts, especially if the survivor is part of a group that remembers the events during their cardiac arrest. Talking to a mental health professional or therapist can help them navigate these changing feelings throughout their recovery process and provide them with the necessary tools to manage them and move forward.

Cognitive issues

Post-cardiac arrest, your loved one may experience some memory issues, particularly regarding the first days or months after the event. Some people might report remembering the events during their cardiac arrest (which in and of itself can be very traumatic) but cannot remember their hospital stay. Others report short-term memory problems that usually improve within months to a year (granted, some people might take longer). 

They might experience other issues like trouble finding the words they want to say, or slower thinking, which can be very frustrating, especially if it has been several months since their cardiac arrest. Again, this is all very normal and to be expected. The survivor’s brain is still healing, and it needs time and rest. Rehabilitation specialists, such as occupational therapists or speech-language pathologists, may be helpful for providing strategies to overcome difficulty with communication and thinking. Talk to your loved one’s medical care team about a referral for evaluation and treatment.

Chest pain

Many cardiac arrest survivors experience chest pain after they leave the hospital, likely from the chest compressions they were given to restart their heart. This is completely normal and should improve within several weeks. The medical care team should be made aware of any severe chest pain, so they can prescribe pain medications that will help control the pain once your loved one is at home. Remember, this is not the time to “power through”; the survivor’s body needs to heal, and helping it alleviate the pain is paramount to their recovery.

Feeling easily overwhelmed

Tasks and activities that were once no big deal may feel like they are more difficult to navigate and more stressful. This can include projects or tasks assigned at work; normal daily activities like grocery shopping, completing chores etc.; or even things like planning trips or social outings. Recognizing and accepting that this is normal is a good first step. Organizing tasks into to-do lists can be helpful. If your loved one feels that they can’t complete a task or don’t feel up to it, putting it on a list and knowing it can be completed later can help. If it’s possible, helping your loved one with certain tasks can alleviate some of the stress, as well.

Thank you to our contributors

Samantha Fernandez & Katrysha Gellis

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