Health on the Net Special: Life-saving advice is a mere mouse- click away

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CAN THE Internet save your life? You might not think so, but, if you want a second opinion, just ask my brother, Mike.

While at work one day last March, Mike, who is 54, began to feel light- headed and noticed tingling sensations in his arms and legs. He was aware of our family's history of heart trouble, though he wasn't experiencing the chest pains or shortness of breath commonly associated with heart attacks. Something was wrong, he was certain of that. But he wasn't sure what it was.

Fortunately, the computer on his desk had an Internet connection. He accessed Yahoo!, one of the Web's most popular information directories. He typed in the words "heart attack" and hit the search button. Moments later a list of Web sites appeared, including the Heart Information Network, an educational site founded by a former heart patient, Andre Pilevsky, and Dr Daniel J Rader, director of the Cardiovascular Risk Intervention Programme at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

A few more mouse clicks and my brother was reading a list of heart attack symptoms: "Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing or pain in the centre of the chest lasting more than a few minutes, spreading to the shoulders, neck or arms, chest discomfort with light-headedness, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath, anxiety and/or cold, sweaty skin ... ".

But it was only when he reached the last symptom on the list - "a feeling of impending doom" - that he had to admit that something was seriously wrong with his heart.

"If you notice one or more of these signs, don't wait. Call your emergency medical services and get to a hospital right away," the Heart Information Network advised. He didn't need to read any further. He was rushed to his local hospital and, within hours, he was in an operating theatre, undergoing a quadruple bypass operation.

So had the Internet saved my brother's life? That would probably be overstating its power. But then again, just maybe it did. After all, having quick access to information about the other symptoms of a heart attack allowed him to realise his life was at risk. Without access to that information, it's quite possible that he would simply have carried on working, perhaps until it was too late.

It's right that we should be concerned about all of the unqualified and unscrupulous "doctors" who use the Internet to take advantage of very ill and often very desperate people. But it would be wrong to overlook efforts being made by the many legitimate organisations, such as the Heart Information Network, and the highly qualified doctors who are using the Net to help people avoid serious illness, by providing them with reliable information

My brother has subsequently made a full recovery. He even went back to work on a part-time basis a few weeks ago. However, he told me that, when he sat down at his desk, he discovered that his computer's modem had gone missing, apparently borrowed by a colleague, and with it his ability to access the Internet. But I'm sure he will get his modem back and be online again in no time. In fact,I'd say you could bet your life on it.

Heart Information Network