How To Save A Life With A Defibrillator

More than one million Americans have heart attacks each year. About 300,000 Americans have sudden cardiac death each year. And for about half of them, it was the first sign of any heart trouble.

Over the past decade, Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) have become increasingly common in workplaces, government buildings, airports and other public places. But still, they are foreign devices to many people. CBS News correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook offers some instruction and advice about how and when to use an AED. It's easy - just read on for what he has to say, or click the video to watch a demonstration by LaPook and CBS News anchor Katie Couric.

What is an AED?

Commonly known as AEDs or defibrillators, they are small, portable, electronic devices that can analyze the heart, detect a potentially fatal abnormal rhythm, then deliver a shock that can restore a normal rhythm.

When a patient suffers sudden cardiac death as a result of a heart attack, it's not the heart attack itself that kills the person - it's an abnormal rhythm (ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation) caused by damage to the heart muscle. A heart that is fibrillating beats ineffectively, like a bag of worms. Blood can no longer be effectively pumped to the vital organs and the patient dies. Once fibrillation has occurred, death will almost always follow unless a shock is delivered.

That's where AEDs come in.

AEDs have been shown to save lives. In general, survival of out of hospital arrest is about 4 to 6 percent. Adding CPR can boost this to about 15 percent, but adding rapid defibrillation raises the save rate to 30 to 40 percent - or even higher.

Once cardiac arrest from an irregular heartbeat has occurred, the sooner an AED is used the better. For every minute of delay from collapse to defibrillation, mortality increases by 7 to 10 percent. Results are best when defibrillation is done within four minutes though CPR can buy some time.

What should I do if I see someone collapse and there is an AED nearby? Should I use it?

The answer is "YES." I highly recommend that everybody take a course in CPR and AED use. But as Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, told me, even if you've had no training in using an AED, you should try to use it if you see somebody collapse.

AED's have built-in instructions that audibly walk you through its use, step by step. All you have to do is turn one on and listen to the instructions. Some even give instructions on how to do CPR.

Nabel emphasized the importance of calling 9-1-1 first to get help. This is crucial because once you get busy doing CPR or using the AED, you may forget to call for help. Call 9-1-1 first, and help can be on its way as you are trying to revive the victim.

Good Samaritan laws protect users of AED's in all 50 states. But if you buy an AED then you should check with the company selling it to find out if there are any regulations (such as certification) that you need to know about.

What is using an AED like?

It's incredibly simple to use because the AED can talk to you. The main thing you have to remember is to hit the on-off button. After that, the machine walks you through exactly what to do, step by step. It will tell you to place the pads on the person's bare chest. It then automatically analyzes the person's heart rhythm. If a serious arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) is present, the AED will tell you to push a flashing button (you can't miss it!) to deliver a shock. It will then analyze the patient's heart again and tell you whether you need to repeat the shock.

Couldn't a shock hurt someone?

AEDs are designed to deliver shocks only to patients who have potentially lethal irregular heartbeats. For example, if a person has just fainted but is otherwise fine, it will tell you that no shock is advised.

Just think: You could save a life.

Where can I find more information?

  • Search for "AED" or "heart attack" at WebMD.
  • Visit the American Heart Association's Web site
  • Check out the Web site of the American College of Cardiology.
  • Or go to the Web site of the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association.
  • You can also check out the Web site of the American Red Cross and its course site here.
  • The American College of Cardiology's CardioSmart site also includes information designed just for patients.
    Dr. Jon LaPook