Coronary perfusion pressure, as reflected by the diastolic aortic to right atrial (Ao-RA) pressure gradient, has been shown to correlate well with coronary blood flow during standard external CPR (SE-CPR) and is an important determinant of successful cardiac resuscitation. Few studies have documented such Ao-RA gradients in human beings, however. Twenty patients sustaining out-of-hospital cardiopulmonary arrests and basic cardiac life support were instrumented with thoracic aortic and right atrial catheters on arrival in the emergency department. The mean time from arrival in the ED to catheter placement was 16.5 +/- 6.0 minutes. With SE-CPR, peak systolic aortic and right atrial pressures were 73.7 +/- 20.2 mm Hg and 69.6 +/- 18.3 mm Hg, respectively. End diastolic aortic and right atrial pressures were 27.9 +/- 7.3 mm Hg and 20.3 +/- 7.2 mm Hg, respectively, with an end diastolic gradient of 7.9 +/- 9.1 mm Hg. Three patients had systolic Ao-RA gradients of more than 25 mm Hg, which is consistent with some cardiac compression as a mechanism of flow. Five patients also had one-minute trials of simultaneous compression and ventilation CPR (SCV-CPR). Ao-RA end diastolic gradients decreased in four of the five during SCV-CPR. No patient in this study was resuscitated successfully. We conclude that ED SE-CPR provides little coronary perfusion for victims of prehospital cardiac arrest. Although SCV-CPR has been shown to improve carotid blood flow in human beings, it appears to have an adverse effect on the already minimal myocardial perfusion provided by SE-CPR.