What you need to know to save lives
We’ve seen it in movies and on TV dozens of times. Grandpa collapses in a shopping mall, mom faints at the airport, or young John from sales loses his balance at the gym and suddenly passes out. A friend or relative leaps into action and they start CPR. In real life, more often, folks are may also reach for an Automated External Defibrillator (AED).
What is (and isn’t) an AED?
A defibrillator is a medical device that stops fibrillation, an erratic heartbeat, by distributing an electrical shock or pulse of approximately 300 joules to the heart. This restores the heart to normal by stopping its uncontrolled trembling. The AED was developed in 1965 by Frank Pantridge, a physician at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The goal was to allow lay people without medical training to use this technology to assist those in the midst of sudden cardiac arrest or who experience arrhythmia (an uneven heartbeat). Frank was of the firm belief that anyone who could perform CPR could operate a defibrillator. Further, he advocated that they are installed beside fire extinguishers, as life was more important than property.
The original prototype ran off car batteries and weighed close to a whopping 155 pounds, compared to today’s models which have a relative feather-weight of just over four pounds. He first installed the “portable” defibrillator in an ambulance, which allowed for patients experiencing cardiac arrest to receive treatment prior to arrival at the hospital. The technology quickly spread to the United States.
One common misconception about AEDs is that they can be used when the heart flat lines, or ceases to beat at all (diehard fans of ER or Grey’s Anatomy can be forgiven this false assumption). Defibrillators typically don’t completely restart the heart, they reset our body’s natural pacemaker so it functions properly.
An AED is also not to be confused with similar devices, such as Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillators (ICDs) or Wearable Cardioverter Defibrillators (WCDs). ICDs are battery-powered devices that are surgically implanted under the skin and connect to the heart via thin wires. They monitor the heart and send a shock if they detect an abnormal rhythm. WCDs perform similar functions but can be worn underneath clothing as a combination garment and monitor.
How does an AED work?
While the very concept of saving another person’s life can be daunting for most of us, the modern AED has been designed to make this miraculous task surprisingly simple. Each AED contains adhesive pads with electrodes which the user attaches to the victim’s chest. This is a simplified system based on hospital defibrillators, which use conductive gel to move the electricity along and hand-held panels with plastic handles to prevent medical professionals from experiencing the shock.
Proper placement of these pads is key to effectively assist the victim. There are two basic options:
- Place one pad above and to the left of the heart, the other below and to the right.
- Place the pads in front of and behind the heart.
The electrodes provide the AED’s computer with crucial information about the heart’s rhythm, that allows it to determine whether an electric shock is necessary and then to provide that shock. AEDs can be used on adults and children as young as 12 months (some devices have specially-sized pads for kids).
When should I use an AED?
Time is of the essence when a person goes into cardiac arrest. Most incidents stem from ventricular fibrillation (VF), a rapid and unsynchronized rhythm that begins in the heart’s lower chambers, or ventricles. Experts estimate that a victim’s chance of survival drops by seven to 10 percent every minute that a normal heartbeat isn’t restored.
First, be sure the person is actually in cardiac arrest. If you see them faint or come upon them already unconscious, confirm that they don’t respond to speaking, shouting, or shaking. In the case of an infant or young child, avoid shaking and instead give them a gentle but firm pinch. Check for breathing and a pulse. If neither is present, call 9-1-1, begin CPR, and seek out an AED.
You can often find AEDs in settings where crowds gather, such as schools, airports, gyms, malls, pools, hotels, and sports venues. They are easily recognizable and look much like a large first-aid kit, often with a heart logo emblazoned on the front.
Clear other bystanders from the immediate area, as touching the victim can interfere with the AED’s readings. Most AEDs provide voice commands that take you through each step of its use. Again, CPR is a key tool and should be administered before or after a shock. The device will likely instruct you when to begin CPR.
The effectiveness of AEDs can be profound. The American Heart Association estimates that survival rates double when bystanders use AEDs before emergency responders arrive. One Beat CPR can be a valuable partner in your organization’s AED purchases and training. You can learn more at our online store and resource guide.