Heart restart: Public defibrillators can save lives


In an emergency, an automatic external defibrillator (AED) can help save a person who is experiencing cardiac arrest.

Here’s a scary situation: You’re out shopping with a friend. The two of you walk past a few stores, talking about where you want to go next, and suddenly your friend collapses. She’s had a heart attack and needs help — fast. What do you do?

I hope you never have to experience such a scenario in real life. Unfortunately, emergencies like this happen every day. According to statistics from the American Heart Association, 70% of Americans don’t know what to do in a cardiac emergency.

Here’s what you should do in the hypothetical shopping mall situation:

  • Check to see if your friend is responsive or breathing.
  • Call 911, explain the situation to the dispatcher, and listen for instructions.
  • If the dispatcher recommends you start CPR, and you know how, do so. If you don’t, shout for help.

What do you do next? In Dallas and throughout Texas, many public places have a device on hand that could potentially save a life: an automated external defibrillator, or AED.

What is an automated external defibrillator?

An AED is a portable, lifesaving device used in cases of cardiac arrest, or when the heart stops pumping blood throughout the body. Cardiac arrest can happen because of a heart attack, electrocution, or drowning, among other causes. When this happens, the patient’s brain no longer receives blood or oxygen.

Your brain can survive only a few minutes without oxygen. That’s why if you’re with someone who has collapsed, you have to move fast. If someone has had a sudden cardiac arrest, an AED could save his or her life. Early defibrillation is critical to surviving sudden cardiac death – the earlier, the better.

How does an AED work?

AEDs are designed so people with little or no training can use them. Instructions for how to use an AED and illustrated pictures are on the device. Once it's turned on, the AED will give voice instructions for how to use it. The AED will tell you how to attach the included electrodes, or special pads, to the patient’s chest.

The AED measures the collapsed person’s heartbeat to find out whether he or she has what we call a “shockable” rhythm — a heartbeat that the AED can reset. If the person has a shockable rhythm, the AED delivers an electrical shock across the person’s chest to reset the heart rhythm.

AEDs quickly allow for lifesaving support, and speed is key in cases of sudden cardiac arrest. With each minute that passes after cardiac arrest, a person’s survival rate drops 10%.

If you witness someone experience cardiac arrest, that person’s chance of survival is much higher if you respond within three minutes or less. In fact, a North American study found that people treated for cardiac arrest by a bystander with an AED have nearly double the survival rate of those who do not receive AED treatment before emergency medical responders arrive. Bystander AED response plus CPR is more effective than CPR alone.

Related reading: 9-step primer on how to use an automated external defibrillator

Public access to AEDs in our community

AEDs in our local stadiums, shopping malls, schools, and other public places can make the difference between a life saved and a life lost. AEDs are easy to spot in public because they’re kept in glass cases that are typically accompanied by large signs with red writing. Many also have a flashing red light affixed to the glass case.

One high-profile example of AED use in our community happened in 2014 during a Dallas Stars hockey game. The Stars former center Rich Peverley collapsed on the team’s bench. Our medical personnel serve as trainers for the Stars at the time, and they used an AED to restart Peverley’s heart before they took him to the hospital for further treatment. (Peverley retired in 2014 and currently serves as Director of Player Personnel for the Stars.)

But adults aren’t the only ones who can suffer from cardiac arrest. According to data from the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation, among cardiovascular deaths in athletes, 54% occur in high school students. For that reason, many of our schools are outfitted with AEDs in accessible locations. Research shows that young people are more likely to survive cardiac arrest when an AED is used.

In addition, AEDs are available in buildings owned or leased by the state of Texas. They also may be available in some police vehicles, workplaces, churches, or other public facilities. AEDs also are on board all commercial airlines these days.

You must have a prescription to own an AED, so it’s not likely that most people would have them in their homes. The greatest impact of AEDs is in public places where there are a lot of people around to help in an emergency.

The bottom line is that when it comes to cardiac arrest, minutes literally make the difference between life and death. In an emergency, a public AED could be all the difference someone needs.