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Defibrillators Become Portable, More Widespread

By Tom Spoth
Sun Staff

Sunday, January 04, 2004 - You’'ve seen the chaotic hospital scenes in TV shows and movies a frantic doctor shouts “Clear!” before zapping the patient’'s chest with two large, daunting paddles.

This device, called a defibrillator, resets the heart’'s electrical system if it goes awry, hopefully restoring a normal rhythm. Though it may seem dangerous, don’'t be surprised if you find yourself operating one or having one applied to you sometime soon.

User-friendly portable defibrillators have begun to pop up in public places like airports, town buildings, and supermarkets. Local police departments, often the first to arrive at the scene of a heart failure, are outfitting their vehicles with the devices.

When a person goes into cardiac arrest, it is critical to administer defibrillation as soon as possible, in addition to performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Sometimes, by the time medical personnel get to a patient, it’'s too late.

According to the American Heart Association, widespread availability of AEDs could save nearly one-third of the 350,000 Americans who die each year from sudden cardiac arrest. If no bystander CPR is provided, a victim’'s chances of survival are reduced by 7 to 10 percent every minute that defibrillation is delayed.

“You can do all the CPR in the world, but unless you reverse the electrical activity of the heart, the person’'s probably going to die,” said Lt. Frank Roark, who is spearheading a drive to make defibrillators a part of life in Chelmsford. “The sooner this device is applied, the better the rate of survival.”

Chelmsford has nine automated external defibrillators (AEDs) seven for on-duty police cruisers, one in the station’'s lobby, and one in the cell block and six more are on the way. The department cobbled together donations, grant money, and discounts from local company Zoll Medical to buy the equipment.

“The ultimate goal is to have enough for every person working that day,” Roark said.

The Zoll AEDs cost about $2,000 each, but the company sold them to Chelmsford for $1,600, according to Police Chief Raymond McCusker. The main unit is about the size of a small pizza, and resembles a children’'s toy with its bright colors and illustrations of rescue procedures.

The defibrillator is connected to electrode pads that stick to the victim’'s chest. It analyzes the patient’'s heart rhythms and verbally instructs the user on whether to administer an electric shock, which can be done at the push of a button.

The Chelmsford Fire Department has been equipped with AEDs for about five years, and emergency vehicles had them long before that. However, because police cruisers are constantly on the street, cops usually arrive at a medical emergency before other personnel.

“We’'ve saved lives with (defibrillators),” Roark said. “But we might’'ve had more saves if that device was applied two or three minutes earlier.”

Judy Dunigan, one of Chelmsford’'s two public health nurses, said she is working to install AEDs in Town Hall, in the Chelmsford Forum hockey rink, at the Chelmsford Country Club golf course, and in public schools. The town is working with Trinity Ambulance to train town employees to use the defibrillators.

“It’'s going to become the standard of practice eventually,” Dunigan said. “We want to be on board.”

The Concord Police Department jumped on the bandwagon about six months ago, ordering eight AEDs, one for each of its cruisers and one for the station.

“It was a great worry when we were working without them,” Chief Leonard Wetherbee said.

"(AEDs are) becoming the minimum standard of care,” he added. “Wherever there’'s a fire extinguisher, there should be access to a defibrillator.”

Billerica has had a defibrillator in each of its nine marked police cars for two years, Sgt. Jerry Roche said.

Some communities Lowell, for instance have not yet obtained AEDs, but Roark predicted that will soon change.

“I will guarantee you that within 1 1/2 to two years, every police department, every cruiser will have them,” he said.

Massachusetts requires that police and fire officials be trained to use AEDs, but has not directed communities to obtain the equipment. The state has provided considerable resources to assist cities and towns in that goal, though.

And with a little help from citizens and medical suppliers, a town like Chelmsford can quickly move to the cutting edge of life-saving technology. McCusker said the Police Department has raised about $10,000 for defibrillators since spring 2003, including a significant donation from the family of Ryan Apostolakes, a 3-year-old boy who drowned in a local lake last summer.

“If you can get to the (victim) within the first three to five minutes, it can make a huge difference,” McCusker said. “This is just another tool in law enforcement’'s arsenal, but it’'s a tool that will save a life.”