BENICIA -- February is American Heart Month and nonprofits like Via Heart Project look for every opportunity they get to increase awareness about sudden cardiac arrest.
The organization provides people with CPR training and classes on using an automated external defibrillator or AED. The group also provides AEDs and helps schools and offices maintain the equipment.
"Oh my gosh, are you OK? Are you OK?" asked Pam Dodson while demonstrating how to respond to someone experiencing cardiac arrest. She showed how to perform CPR and use an AED earlier this month to leaders of Benicia Unified School District.
Dodson is the program development coordinator for Via Heart Project. Started in 2010 in an effort to increase the survival rate of cardiac arrest around Northern California, Via Heart Project has placed more than 3,000 AEDs locally and across the nation.
Leaders have focused on schools because they say sudden cardiac arrest is the leading killer of school athletes. Up to 350,000 people die in the U.S. each year, according to the nonprofit, more than many well-known diseases combined.
"It's more common that we care to admit and almost everyone knows someone who has dropped dead suddenly," said Via Heart Project Executive Director Liz Lazar. "It can happen to anyone at any time. Cardiac arrest doesn't care what ethnicity you are, what your race you are, or what your income level is."
Lazar says cases people hear about, but often never learn the final cause of death in instances of cardiac arrest. Such incidents as when a good swimmer drowns or someone who fell asleep at the wheel when it wasn't late at night are just a few examples of when sudden cardiac arrest may have taken place.
But Lazar wants the public to understand that you can restart the heart before the brain starts to die. That's why the organization has pushed for more AEDs in the community and checks the ones the group has distributed monthly to make sure they are working properly.
The awareness campaign this month has received more attention nationally after Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field in January during an Monday night NFL game.
"It's wonderful to see that everybody's paying attention and talking about it," Lazar told KPIX. "Time counts. Minutes count. Seconds count. We don't have years to treat it. We don't even have minutes to treat it."
For every minute someone is responding, their chance of survival goes down 10 percent. That is one of the points Dodson makes in front of every audience she speaks to about CPR and AEDs.
In recent years, they've tried to simplify the approach to make it less intimidating to someone who suddenly realizes they need to help. She tells the room to remember to call 911, start pumping the chest, and have someone get an AED so it can administer a shock.
"It doesn't really matter how old you are. When it comes to sudden cardiac arrest, it hits at any age," Dodson told the room.
But beyond remembering "Call. Push. Shock." and training for CPR and an AED, heart health is also part of the message they share all year. Taking better care of yourself means knowing the numbers that will keep you from cardiac arrest, which includes blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, and other categories.
"It's the system, it's a program that saves the lives. I always say AED's, they're important, they don't save lives," Dodson told KPIX.
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