While working out at the gym or shopping at the grocery store, you’ve probably seen a box attached to a wall with a heart-shaped symbol and a lightning bolt.
It’s an AED, or automated external defibrillator, and that small device plays a large role in helping save the lives of people who are in cardiac arrest.
More than 350,000 people go into cardiac arrest each year outside of hospitals, according to the American Heart Association. The survival rate is only about 10 percent, but when an AED is used, those odds improve significantly.
A recent highly publicized case involved Christian Eriksen, a midfielder for Denmark’s national soccer team who collapsed on the field and went into cardiac arrest during a Euro 2020 match against Finland in June.
The team doctor said Eriksen, 29, “was gone” before he was resuscitated with the help of CPR and a defibrillator. “We got him back after one defib,” Dr. Morten Boesen told NBC News at the time. “That’s quite fast.”
Eriksen, 29, was treated on the field for about 10 minutes, surrounded by his teammates, before being carried off the field on a stretcher and taken to the hospital. After his recovery, sales of AEDs soared as more people became aware of the benefits and their ability to save lives.
Another well-known case involved Bob Harper, a fitness trainer on “The Biggest Loser” TV show. Harper was at the gym in 2017 when he collapsed. “I was in full cardiac arrest,” he told the “Today” show. “My heart stopped. Not to be dramatic, but I was dead.”
People at the gym performed CPR and used an AED on Harper until paramedics arrived.
He recovered and said the experience changed his life. Harper shares his story, along with others who have persevered through similar experiences, through an organization called Survivors Have Heart.
How AEDs work
An automated external defibrillator is a portable device that delivers electrical energy to someone experiencing cardiac arrest to get their heart back into a normal rhythm.
AEDs are designed to be easy for people to use. Training is often included in first aid, basic life support (BLS) and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) classes.
A portable version of the defibrillator was developed in the 1960s, and AEDs have become increasingly popular and more readily available. You can frequently find them in gyms, schools, airports, shopping centers, government buildings and other public places.
Defibrillators are most effective for people experiencing life-threatening ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation.
Ventricular tachycardia occurs when the heart beats too fast to pump blood effectively. This can lead to ventricular fibrillation, when the heart’s electrical activity becomes chaotic.
An AED kit usually includes:
- A face shield
- Rubber gloves
- A towel
- Scissors to cut through clothing
- A razor for shaving men with hairy chests
All approved AEDs in the United States use voice prompts to lead the user through the steps, and some also have a visual display.
The American Red Cross offers training and discounts for businesses that want to buy an automated external defibrillator.
Get Help ASAP
Getting help as soon as possible is critical to survival. After about three to five minutes of cardiac arrest, irreversible brain damage and death can occur.
With each passing minute, the chances of survival decrease. A couple of minutes could be the difference between life and death. After about 10 minutes, the patient likely will not survive. That’s why AEDs are so important to help someone in distress until first responders arrive.
Even if you are using an AED to help someone, 911 still must be called immediately so trained first responders can quickly get there.
Some people with a history of heart problems keep an AED at home, and the devices have grown more affordable. Just be aware that you need to replace the electrode pads and batteries periodically.
Here’s what you should do if someone needs help:
- Call 911 immediately
- Start chest compressions and CPR
- Use an AED until first responders arrive
- Get the person to a hospital as soon as possible
When You Shouldn’t Use an AED
You should not use a defibrillator on someone who is having a heart attack. What’s the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest? If the person is still breathing and responsive, it’s probably a heart attack. If they are not breathing and unresponsive, it’s most likely cardiac arrest.
Defibrillators also should not be used on trauma patients, children younger than 1 year old or anyone who has a pulse.
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