The Defibrillator: Learn About It and Save a Life

Wielding a defibrillator might seem like an intimidating endeavor, but knowing how it works could help you save someone's life one day.

You've seen it on hundreds of TV shows -- paramedics arrive on the scene to tend to a heart-attack victim, and they whip out an electrical device that seems to jump-start the patient back to life. Could you jump into the paramedic's place to save that heart-attack victim's life?

Knowing when to use a defibrillator

Cardiac arrest, or sudden cardiac arrest, occurs due to "ventricular fibrillation". This is a situation in the heart in which an electrical "short-circuit" has occurred, causing the heart muscle to "fibrillate" or quiver. Having a heart in this condition means little or no forward blood flow in the body, leading to circulatory arrest followed quickly by death. The brief time span between the onset of cardiac arrest and the death of the victim is the main reason that currently less than 5 percent of people who suffer sudden cardiac arrest live through it.

A defibrillator delivers an electric shock to the heart muscle in an attempt to reintroduce a normal heart rhythm to a someone who has suffered or is suffering cardiac arrest. A defibrillator is made up of the main unit and is equipped with a set of two electrodes. The electrodes are placed directly on or in the patient. In the case of an internal implanted defibrillator, the entire device is placed inside the body, whereas, with an external defibrillator, defibrillation is carried out externally by placing the electrodes, or "pads," at different points on the torso of the victim or patient.

Defibrillators have been around in crude form since the 1940s. In fact the first life saved using a defibrillator was in 1947, when Claude Beck successfully revived a young patient using an open-chest defibrillation device. Since the 1980s though the science has been evolving into a very precise and technically efficient system. Internal and external defibrillators are now far safer and more efficient than they ever have been.

Automated external defibrillators (AEDs) are now even available to the public. They are becoming more visible in public gathering places such as theatres, sports stadiums, churches, etc. They are also employed by the travel industry, being found in the cockpits of commercial airliners, on cruise ships, and in other transport related industries. Most modern AEDs will advise you if defibrillation is necessary and if so, some will walk you through the CPR process.

Using an automated external defibrillator for the first time can certainly be intimidating due to the level of immediacy called for and the mere fact that one is being confronted with a life/death situation. However, modern AEDs are designed to take you by the hand and walk you through the steps necessary to successfully defibrillate an SCA victim -- using visual and audio prompts -- whether you have been formally trained in the procedures or not.

Heart attack at home

Defibrillators for home use are also becoming more common. In the same way that commercial companies are using them, defibrillators are being employed in homes around the U.S., especially by those who suffer from, or have family members who suffer from, heart-related illness. This is an encouraging step forward technologically and medically. With growing numbers of people having available to them this life-saving device, the rate at which sudden cardiac arrest claims its victims may soon be seen to be in decline.

So, if you haven't already, take a look at the growing number of AEDs now available. Having a defibrillator available in a home or office, more especially if someone there has a heart condition, is worth all the life insurance you could ever buy.

AED training is currently offered by the American Red Cross, EMP America, the American Health and Safety Institute, the National Safety Council, and others. These classes usually take only three to four hours to complete.

One caveat: for most home use defibrillators you need a doctor's prescription. The Philips HeartStart Home edition is currently the one exception, but that may change in time.