Saturday, February 27, 1999

Device puts
heart jolt in
isle hands

Nonmedical workers will
learn to use defibrillators in
a national pilot project

By Lauran Neergaard
Associated Press


WASHINGTON -- Honolulu will be among 17 cities to take part in an ambitious American Red Cross pilot program that will put lifesaving defibrillators in the hands of co-workers, who can then help jump-start the hearts of cardiac arrest victims.

Every year, 350,000 Americans collapse and die of cardiac arrest -- their hearts just suddenly stop beating. Every minute spent waiting for paramedics to arrive lowers the chance of survival by 10 percent.

CPR buys patients crucial time, but it will not restart a heart. Now companies, shopping malls, even amusement parks are buying portable defibrillators, small versions of the electric shock paddles made famous on TV, which can jolt hearts into beating again.

Experts say portable defibrillators could save 100,000 lives a year, if used widely enough. They don't require medical expertise. Anyone with simple training can grab one and restart a person's heart, said Red Cross President Steve Bullock.

And they can't hurt: The machine won't shock if it detects a heartbeat.

"Our goal is to have America trained," said Bullock, who will announce a pilot training program in 17 cities Wednesday.

"This is the way we're going to save more lives."

Between March and July, the 4-1/2-hour courses will be phased in to the Red Cross' standard CPR training for U.S. businesses in those cities, teaching company employees how to defibrillate a collapsed co-worker or customer.

Workplace training can protect the most people, because 130 million Americans work each week, and many spend the majority of their waking hours on the job, Bullock said. One study suggests cardiac arrest is most common Monday mornings and Friday afternoons.

The 17-city pilot project will be expanded to companies nationwide in July.

Eventually, Bullock hopes to offer broader defibrillation training, in places like neighborhood community centers.

"It wasn't hard at all," said Ron Trainor, safety director of Brechteen Co., the first company trained.

Railroad tracks surround the Chesterfield, Mich., meat-casing factory, meaning trains could block a much-needed ambulance, he said. Now, if a worker collapses, 26 of the 150 employees, enough for each shift, could use a defibrillator kept at the factory instead of awaiting paramedics.

Cardiac arrest is not a heart attack; it's worse: Without warning, the electrical signals that pump the heart go haywire and heartbeat stops. Victims pass out almost immediately. One in 20 survives.

CPR gets oxygen to the victim's brain while help is summoned, but only a jolt of electricity can restart the heart. Defibrillation within four minutes is most successful; after 10 minutes, it usually fails.

The first portable defibrillators began selling in late 1996, and not all paramedics carry them. Experts have focused on getting them to police, who often beat ambulances to the scene. Some large corporations have trained guards to use the devices, and airlines, too, are buying them.

But they're not yet a common part of first aid. The American Heart Association began offering courses in September, but the Red Cross program aims to give defibrillators a higher profile.

People do need training, but it's not hard, said the heart association's Patricia Bowser. She expects defibrillator use to grow once more states give liability protection to people who try to save a bystander. Only 21 states have such laws now.

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