What could you do if you saw someone collapse in sudden cardiac arrest, a condition in which the heart stops beating and which can kill in minutes?
Calling 911, checking for breathing and a pulse, starting cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) -- all are part of the chain of survival. But the real difference between life and death for most cardiac-arrest victims is the availability and use of an automated external defibrillator, or AED.
Numerous studies show that not only are most bystanders unfamiliar with the portable, battery-powered devices and their locations, but many emergency dispatch centers and paramedics don't know where all the devices are.
"Unfortunately, many people don't know they exist,'' said Steven Tannenbaum, chairman of the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association, a New York attorney and cardiac-arrest survivor who trains people to use the devices. "People are surprised at how simple and safe they are to use." He says he's alive today because "two angels'' knew what to do to revive him when he collapsed in May 2009.
In an ideal world, everyone would be familiar with AEDs and CPR, and one of the devices, which provide the electric jolt needed to restart a heart, would be within a few hundred feet of any spot in a public place. Emergency dispatchers would be equipped with lists of each AED's location, and could tell callers where to find them. And phone apps would exist to provide anyone with the same information.
Many groups are working toward those ideals, but for now, finding an AED depends more on individual effort and a bit of detective work.
Here's what experts say you can do to prepare to save a life:
-- Learn: Become familiar with how a person in sudden cardiac arrest appears, what an AED looks like, and the basics of CPR and AED use. This does not have to be complicated. "Someone can learn the basics with a five-minute demonstration,'' said Linda Campbell, a retired aeromedical specialist who still trains the people who train flight attendants in AED use at American Airlines.
The American Heart Association and the American Red Cross provide much of the CPR/AED training nationwide, although other volunteer and for-profit groups also offer certification. Full-scale courses may be required by law in some locations and jobs. But remember that no one has to have formal training to use one or to have "good Samaritan" immunity from liability suits when voluntarily trying your best to save a life even if you don't succeed.
Most important: Don't be afraid you will hurt the person in sudden cardiac arrest by using an AED. If the heart is not shocked back into rhythm, the person will die. By quickly employing an AED, you give the victim his or her only chance to live.
Here are links to three training videos about cardiac arrest, CPR and AED use. One is in Spanish:
-- Locate: Take an AED inventory wherever you go -- work, school, shopping, recreation and sports facilities, church. Look for the universal AED sign -- a red heart with a lightning-bolt blaze across it. But, unlike fire extinguishers, AEDs often are not prominently visible and identifiable. If you don't see one where you think one should be, ask around. Many AEDs in businesses and office buildings are locked away. If that's the case, determine who's responsible for access to the device and what the emergency plan is. Suggest more public availability.
When you travel, look and ask around about AEDs, too, including at hotels and airports. In some places, expect to have to explain what they are and why they are vital. Be persistent.
-- Lobby: Talk up AEDs and CPR with friends, family and co-workers. Prepare a personal emergency plan for you and those close to you. If there isn't an AED where you expect one to be, ask why and find out how one or more might be deployed. Determine if there is a registry of AED locations in your community, and how it's used. Be an advocate for more people to learn how to save a life, and for more AEDs to be available in public spaces.
(Reach Scripps health and science writer Lee Bowman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)