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Quick Defibrillation Can Save Lives


Most heart attacks occur away from the hospital, and survival depends largely upon how quickly treatment begins. The good thing is that lay people can offer a lot of help to a heart attack victim, if they have the right training and available equipment. Most people know that CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) is one of the ways to treat a person having a heart attack. CPR classes are generally available in local hospitals and at the American Heart Association.

But another important aspect of quick heart attack treatment is defibrillation. A defibrillator is an electronic device that gives a shock to the heart. It can help a heart that’s not beating properly get back into a more normal rhythm. It used to be that defibrillators were available only in hospitals. You’ve probably seen them on television shows, when someone playing a doctor or other healthcare provider applies paddles to a heart attack victim’s chest.

Cardiac arrest: some numbers
How serious is sudden cardiac arrest? Take a look at these figures:

  • There are about 300,000 deaths per year due to sudden cardiac arrest.
  • About one fourth of those cases occur in public places.
  • About 70 percent occur in the home.
  • According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Association (NHLBI), the average survival rate for sudden cardiac death is about 4 percent.
  • Resuscitation that doesn’t take place within 10 minutes or less is almost always unsuccessful.

Defibrillators—at home, in public places
In November, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first cardiac defibrillator that’s designed specifically for use at home. It’s available only with a doctor’s prescription, and the FDA recommends that anyone who has a defibrillator at home receive CPR training. The device costs $2,295.00.

Some health experts worry that people at home may lose precious minutes while they try to use the device instead of calling 911. People should call 911 first, and then begin treatment with the defibrillator.

Having defibrillators at home doesn’t make sense for everyone. But if you or someone in your family has heart disease or is at risk for sudden cardiac arrest, you may want to talk with your doctor and find out whether having a defibrillator is a good idea for you.

The home isn’t the only non-medical place you’ll be finding defibrillators. The American Heart Association and the NHLBI have long been promoting the idea of placing the devices in large public places. The idea is to have them available for trained medical and lay people who are in the vicinity when a heart attack occurs.

A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that having defibrillators in public places can, in fact, increase survival rates from sudden cardiac arrest. The study took place in a two-year period in three airports in Chicago. During the study period:

  • 18 people had ventricular fibrillation cardiac arrest, and 11 of those survived
  • All survivors received CPR from bystanders.
  • 9 survivors were defibrillated within 5 minutes
  • 2 survivors were defibrillated within 7 minutes
  • The survival rate was highest among those who had defibrillation within 5 minutes

Of course, we’re not all going to rush out and get defibrillators for our homes. But one thing we can all do is learn how to administer CPR and how to use defibrillators. Life is unpredictable. If a person near you suffers cardiac arrest, would you know what to do about it?

The New England Journal of Medicine, 16 October 2002; The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Association; The American Heart Association; The New York Times, 13 November 2002.
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