A couple of weeks ago my dad, Ron, called me sometime after dinner. “Hey, can you take me to the ER? I’m having some chest pains and it just doesn’t seem like a good idea to drive myself.” I quickly gathered my things while asking him questions: “Are you having any other symptoms? As in, would it be more prudent to call an ambulance instead?” He wasn’t experiencing any other of the hallmark symptoms of a heart attack, and felt an ambulance probably wasn’t necessary (You can read more here about when an ambulance is necessary). When I got to his house he was waiting, backpack in hand, ready to go. At the ER I dropped him off at the front door, where he was promptly seen.

Have you ever wondered what happens if you go to the ER with chest pains? We already know that if you’re in cardiac arrest you must call an ambulance first, but what if what you’re experiencing isn’t that severe, but still worth seeing a doctor over (Note: Always see a doctor if you’re having chest pains)? Here’s what to expect if you go to the ER with chest pains.

First (and this is extremely important) DO NOT DRIVE YOURSELF. Even if you’re experiencing very minor pains and no other symptoms (like Ron), you do not know when those symptoms could rapidly escalate. By driving yourself you are putting not only your own life at risk, but those lives of the people around you. Be sure to call a friend or loved one to drive you. Medical protocol dictates that if you do go to your primary care doctor or Urgent Care, they will immediately direct you the Emergency Room; skip the unnecessary steps and just go straight to the ER if you’re having chest pains.

Upon arrival, let the receptionist know that you’re having chest pains. Because the nature of heart attacks can be both sudden and severe, you will be seen right away. The first test they will conduct is an ECG (electrocardiogram) which will be read by a doctor. This test will reveal if you’re experiencing a heart attack because the blocked artery will be revealed by the ECG. If you are, then you will be admitted into the hospital where they will immediately begin treating the blockage. Additionally, regardless of the ECG results, they will also give you aspirin because it’s been shown to prevent heart attacks and reduce the chances of stroke or blood clots.

Now, for many people experiencing chest pains, no blockages show up on the ECG; this was the case for Ron. In his case, further tests needed to be run to ascertain what was going on. A blood test can show whether or not your heart is emitting a certain enzyme that is associated with heart attack because the heart only releases this enzyme when it’s oxygen supply is being cut off. Additionally, a doctor will assess you based on a points system that calculates risk: out of 10 points, one point for each risk factor including things like family history, age, smoking, etc. Four or more points gets you admitted into the hospital, regardless of what’s showing up on the ECG.

Because my dad is over the age of 60 (one point), has a history of blood clots (another point), and was once a smoker (yet another point) the doctor chose to keep him overnight for observation despite his blood tests coming back clean. While under observation they had him complete a stress test, which involves walking an increasingly challenging course on a treadmill while hooked up to various monitors. Doctors also ordered chest x-rays to determine if there were any additional blockages that weren’t showing up anywhere else.

Ultimately they were able to see that Ron had a very minor, non-life-threatening blockage above his heart, but not in an artery. In fact, his chest pains ended not long after he was given the aspirin and did not return during his overnight stay at the hospital. They released my dad and made sure he scheduled a follow-up appointment with a cardiologist. The whole experience shed light on the medical advancements that have been made over the years to increase the survival rates of people experiencing a heart attack.

If you are experiencing chest pains, regardless of other symptoms, make sure you see a medical professional immediately. 

Related: I Thought We Were Invincible, Why a Heart Patient is Becoming a Heart Doctor, A Change of Heart