Berke on Safety: Automated External Defibrillators Save Lives

April 21, 2009
Automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) are easy to use, even for the untrained, and can save lives and reduce brain and heart damage.

Stu collapsed suddenly during a racquetball match at his health club. His opponent, a volunteer firefighter, started CPR when he found Stu wasn’t breathing and had no pulse. A club employee sent someone to call 911 and attached an automated-external defibrillator (AED) to Stu’s inert body. Two shocks later, Stu was breathing again and his heart had returned to a normal rhythm.

At the hospital, doctors determined a blood clot had traveled to Stu’s heart. He was treated, implanted with an automated-internal defibrillator, and released. His doctor estimated that he had been clinically dead for 54 seconds. A month later he was back at work and active on his bowling team, although he might not have all his strength back; I won a quarter from him last time we met at the lanes.

Unlike most of the examples I use in this column, this one hit close to home. Stu is a close personal friend, bowling partner, golfing opponent, and a nice person. This experience made me a proponent of AEDs in workplaces and anywhere people gather, like airports, schools, shopping centers, and health clubs.

Many police cars and paramedic ambulances carry the devices. But in the five or more minutes it can take first responders to arrive at the site of a 911 call, the stricken person can suffer severe brain damage, heart damage, or death.

It is my opinion that everyone should take a first-aid course that includes CPR and AED. Such training, including annual refresher courses, was required for the health-club employee who saved Stu. The general public can find these courses locally through the Red Cross or a local heart center.

AEDs are designed to be easy to use, even for those without training. Like a GPS unit, an AED gives step-by-step voice instructions telling the operator how to use it. It explains how to check for respiration and pulse and where to position the electrodes on a person’s chest. It will also guide the user through CPR.

Once attached, the AED automatically analyzes the person’s heart rhythm and determines whether a shock is needed, relieving the user of a decision he may not be qualified to make. If a shock is not appropriate, it will not be delivered. When a shock is indicated, the unit tells the user to stand back and press a button to deliver the shock.

AEDs can be lifesavers in public places, but they would be most useful in the home where we spend much of our time. Presently, Philips manufactures the only AED approved by the Food and Drug Administration for home use. The unit, which sells for under $1,300, is the only model available without a doctor’s prescription.

Although the cost of this AED is prohibitive for most households, the monetary outlay pales in comparison to what you would willingly pay to bring back a loved one. I expect other manufacturers will enter the home-AED market in the next couple of years, bringing the price down substantially.

Lanny Berke is a registered professional engineer and Certified Safety Professional involved in forensic engineering since 1972. Got a question about safety? You can reach Lanny at [email protected].

Edited by Jessica Shapiro

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