When CPR Fails

by Isaiah -

When CPR FailsPicture this: an average person (not a medical professional) is shopping for groceries. Ahead of them, a man in his late forties collapses and falls unconscious. The person sees this and, acting quickly, runs to the man and asks if he is okay. Seeing he is unconscious, the person calls 911 and begins performing CPR on the man.

EMS personnel arrive on the scene and take over. The man is rushed to the hospital and pronounced dead.

What could have been done differently?

Honestly, not a whole lot.

The thing that most people don’t know is that CPR, which stands for Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation, is ironically not intended to resuscitate a person at all. Its goal is to circulate enough oxygen to keep the brain from dying, but this process very rarely results in a person regaining consciousness.

A person who has “failed” at CPR should not blame themselves. To understand why, let’s talk about death.

There is a sharp distinction between clinical death and biological death, and understanding this decision is key to understanding CPR. Clinical death means that the heart has stopped beating, whereas biological death means the brain has shut off. The difference is critical: when a person suffers from cardiac arrest (their heart stops beating), they are, right then and there, clinically dead. CPR is performed because they are not yet biologically dead, and by manually pumping the heart you may delay the onset of biological death. Note the word “delay.” In only 2% of cases can CPR alone resuscitate a person. The reason for this is that CPR is not a replacement for breathing.

CPR can only provide, at optimum performance, 20% of a person’s oxygen necessary to stay alive. Do you see what this means? CPR cannot be relied upon to keep a person alive. Once the heart is stopped, that person cannot be kept alive indefinitely by a person thumping on their chest. If CPR is all a person has, the outlook is grim. If, however, an AED is available or (better yet) 911 is called, that person has a much better chance of surviving. So why do CPR?

Legally speaking, if a person is dead they can’t be hurt. If you come across a man whose heart is not beating, that man is dead. If you begin giving him CPR and his ribs crack and vomit comes out of his mouth and he dies, it isn’t your fault. He was already dead when you found him: you simply did your best to delay his biological death until something suited to actually saving him could arrive.

This article is meant to encourage and educate: over 40% of the Americans who die from cardiac arrest every year receive no CPR whatsoever. If you or someone you know tried your hardest to save a life and failed, even if you did something “wrong”, you still significantly increased that person’s chance for coming back to life simply by doing anything at all.

In short, be willing to help if you are needed: you won’t save a life on your own, but you might be the key to a life being saved. Some CPR is always better than none, and so it does no good to be discouraged by a past “failure” if, heaven forbid, you are called upon to help delay death yet again.


  1. Michael

    I’m 0 & 1 for CPR. This video satisfies my curiosity on why CPR didn’t work. I know when it’s your time to go you go, however, I had always felt in the moment I could save a life. Odd thing about it was it didn’t hit me until about a week after the event. Thanks for the video, I’m sure it will help with forgiving myself. I know logically I’m not at fault but it’s difficult to shake the feeling.

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