Sudden cardiac arrest — when, without warning, the heart stops beating — kills 350,000 Americans of various ages and occupations a year, according to the American Heart Association.
Yet now, with high school sports teams in intensive training for their fall seasons, is when we are most aware of these fatalities because of a tragic drama: A young athlete in peak condition, who has never flunked a physical or shown the faintest sign of cardiac problems, suddenly collapses.
Death is usually all but instantaneous — but not inevitable, not if an Automated External Defibrillator device, or AED, and someone willing to use it are close at hand.
Sudden cardiac arrest is not the same as a heart attack, which usually is caused by blocked arteries and often gives some advance warning. Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the electrical impulses that control the heart suddenly misfire.
The mild electric shock from an AED “resets” the heart, allowing it to resume normal function. Bystanders revive several thousand people this way each year. More widespread use of the devices could save 20,000 more, the American Red Cross says.
Since their introduction in the 1950s, AEDs have become smaller, simpler and basically foolproof; in one study, sixth-graders mastered them quickly. The 2.5 million AEDs in this country are far short of the 30 million experts say are needed just to cover metropolitan areas and far short of the Red Cross goal of having every person within four minutes of an AED.
There are no good reasons why AEDs are not widely and readily available. They should be and the solution may require public outcry and political attention.
Uniform national standards need to replace state and local rules on where and how AEDs are placed — ordering that they be placed prominently, like fire extinguishers, and regularly maintained.
The AEDs should clearly display the Good Samaritan legal exception — all states have them — that protects from liability for injury or wrongful death people who voluntarily and in good faith try to save a life.
Says one manufacturer of AEDs, “It’s kind of blunt, but the bottom line is that when you’re in cardiac arrest, you’re dead before you hit the ground. There’s no way you can cause that victim any more harm using that device. You’re trying to bring them back.”
An American public that had no problem mastering smart phones should have even less difficulty with AEDs once they are, as they should be, highly visible and readily accessible.
Dale McFeatters writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.