That passion drives Atkins’ work as professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine and as a pediatric cardiologist. She’s a steadfast advocate for advancing resuscitation science in the young and the national “go to” resource when there are questions about it.
Last month the American Heart Association recognized Atkins’ work by naming her a meritorious achievement winner.
She talks passionately about the urgency of sudden cardiac arrest, and she’s dedicated to improving outcomes for children who have suffered it or are at risk for it.
“If the patient does not receive CPR and, if needed, defibrillation, within the first 10 minutes of the event, their outlook is dismal,” Atkins said. “Survival declines 10 percent per minute, so if you go 10 minutes, your chances of survival are pretty close to zero.”
It was 1983, early in her career, when Atkins first connected with the American Heart Association. Right away she was asked to commit her time to three important initiatives.
“I went to my division chief and asked, ‘do you think these things are worthy my time?,’ Atkins said. “Thinking he’d say, don’t do all of them, he said, ‘absolutely yes, the American Heart Association is our biggest professional organization for our patients, and they’re very active in research.’”
Thus began a 30-year commitment that started when she joined the AHA’s Council on Cardiovascular Disease in the Young. Her commitment — to her patients and to the association — has stayed strong.
In her practice, Atkins sees patients with congenital heart defects and heart rhythm abnormalities, treating newborns all the way through adults.
Some of those relationships have lasted decades. She has many patients who are now in their 20s and 30s — and she has been their cardiologist their entire lives. She gets graduation announcements and attends weddings. “It’s very gratifying,” she said.
Atkins has been relentless in shedding light on the differences between cardiac arrest in children and adults, both for the public and caregivers.
And she’s dedicated to spreading the word about the importance of AEDs in schools as well as athletic fields and arenas at which children compete. She has done a great deal of work in making sure AEDs could be used for children, working on efforts to modify them to make them compatible for kids’ smaller sizes.
Last year, when the American Heart Association established a goal to double survival from cardiac arrest for both children and adults by 2020, it was a natural fit for Atkins to chair the science committee that’s leading the effort.
As she notes, although the AHA is the leader in resuscitation science, there is still much work to be done.
Globally, survival rates for kids and adults who suffer sudden cardiac arrest about 10 to 12 percent. She points to Seattle, where the rate is about 60 percent due to training and a well-organized system, as a model for the rest of the world.
“We still have a lot to do. We need to use the model of Seattle and make our EMS communities accountable,” she said. “We need to provide the absolute best science. We need to continue to show the National Institutes of Health that sudden cardiac arrest is a major public health problem. The amount of federal money allocated for this is miniscule compared to other major diseases.”