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Fear of boobs should not stop you from giving women CPR

A new study shows just how little we understand women’s bodies.


Claire Downs



A new study suggests that women are more likely to die in a situation where they could otherwise be saved by CPR, because bystanders are afraid of touching breasts.

The research, conducted by the American Heart Association (AHA) and the National Institutes of Health, examined nearly 20,000 cases of cardiac arrest and found a disturbing gender gap when it came to receiving life-saving procedures from public responders. Only 39 percent of women who suffered cardiac arrest in a public place were given CPR versus 45 percent of men—and men were 23 percent more likely to survive, according to the study.

Dr. Benjamin Abella, a lead researcher on the project from UPenn, noted that when rescuers were questioned, they remarked that a fear of touching a woman’s chest area and being reluctant to “move a woman’s clothing” prevented them from responding. The study also found gender biases within CPR training itself: Most practice mannequins do not have breasts, and some people thought large breasts would “impede proper placement of defibrillator pads.”

First and foremost, let’s clear up how CPR works: Properly administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation does not ever entail putting your hands on anyone’s pectoral area, male or female. Correct procedure involves placing hands directly against the sternum. As in, between the breasts. If you are one of the 12 million people who the American Heart Association certifies annually, you would know this basic information. When statistics about cardiac emergencies are already bleak (less than 8 percent of people who suffer cardiac arrest outside of a hospital survive), having breasts absolutely should not stand in the way of helping a victim’s chance of survival, which can double or triple when given CPR.

However, the public’s “fear” of helping women points to a greater medical, and ultimately cultural, problem: The lack of research and information we have when it comes to female patients and women’s bodies. Common mythology tells us that heart disease is a “man’s problem.” However, cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women. Even the CDC acknowledges the media skewers cardiac disease to be about men. A Google Images search for “heart attack” yields a page covered in stock photos and drawings of 25 men and two women clutching their chests. A search for “CPR” art for this piece came up with hundreds of men and male mannequins being resuscitated, but only one woman.

It’s also been well-documented that women’s heart attacks can be vastly different than men’s, in terms of symptoms, blood pressure levels, and triggers. If we are only taught as a culture to look out for men grabbing their left arm during a cardiac emergency, we may miss out on a woman experiencing stabbing pain in her chest and jaw muscles while having an attack. These differences weren’t even recognized until a study on gender variations in cardiac symptoms pointed it out in 2007—only 10 years ago.

Normalizing male CPR dolls and male-focused cardiac studies speaks to pervasive gender bias in biomedical research and the medical community. Scientific studies limit their scope of findings and put half the population at risk when clinical trials disproportionately represent male subjects. For example, a 2008 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology reported that women comprised only 10 to 47 percent of each subject pool in 19 heart-related trials. And a 2015 editorial published in the American Heart Association’s Circulation journal cited reports that show female subjects are “woefully underrepresented” in cardiovascular research.

Doctors and medical professionals also fail women in emergency situations by minimizing, mocking, and silencing female patients. “The Girl Who Cried Pain,” a study published in The Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics in 2001, found that women are “more likely to be treated less aggressively in their initial encounters with the healthcare system until they ‘prove that they are as sick as male patients.’” In emergency rooms nationwide, men wait an average of 49 minutes for painkillers while women wait an average of 65 minutes for the same thing. According to a 2000 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, women are seven times more likely than men to be misdiagnosed and discharged mid-heart-attack because doctors fail to recognize women’s heart attack symptoms.

In the UPenn study, 70 percent of Americans said they feel “helpless” in a cardiac emergency because they don’t know CPR or their training has lapsed. But you don’t need to be officially certified in CPR to perform it on someone else. There are many, many, many, online resources, videos and apps to get you up to speed on basic first aid, AED, and resuscitation training. At a minimum, we should all know by now that performing chest compressions to the beat of the Bee Gees’ hit song “Stayin’ Alive” provides the optimal rhythm until an ambulance arrives.

Regardless, we cannot let this kind of “othering” of women’s bodies and women’s health issues—by doctors, by researchers, and by the media—stand in the way of keeping female-identifying members of society alive. If there is an emergency, we cannot be afraid of accidentally grazing the victim’s breast, wrinkling her shirt, or cracking her rib by being overly aggressive with chest compressions. None of those things matter if she dies due to gendered fear, a distorted sense of politeness, or social apathy.

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