Commentary: Every office should have a defibrillator

July 28, 2008

Tim Russert died last month at age 58.

He was Washington bureau chief for NBC and the moderator of "Meet the Press." His physician, Michael Newman, described the cause of death as coronary thrombosis-sudden cardiac arrest. Russert's untimely death was possibly preventable. We can learn something here that may save lives at our businesses.

Russert had been diagnosed with asymptomatic coronary artery disease that he controlled with medication and exercise. According to Newman, his stress test in April was normal. For reasons beyond the understanding of modern science, cholesterol plaque ruptured in an artery and set in motion a chain of events that cut short Russert's life and extraordinary career. Media accounts said Russert was rushed to Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C., where resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful.

The efforts may have been unsuccessful because they were too late. Had an external defibrillator, an electrical device that shocks the heart back into normal rhythm, been readily available to someone who knew how to use it, Russert could well be hosting "Meet the Press" again this weekend.

Unfortunately, the Russert result is the norm for these episodes. As many as 95 percent of sudden cardiac arrests result in death before emergency help arrives. It works like this: The heart's electric signal suddenly becomes rapid and chaotic and prevents the heart from pumping blood through the body. When the brain does not receive oxygenated blood, the individual loses consciousness in seconds. Death follows in minutes. Regular CPR is ultimately ineffective when the heart is in this wild arrhythmic state but may buy some time until a defibrillator can be found.

Russert died while recording voice-overs for his weekend show. Why wasn't an external defibrillator conveniently available near the studio? Why weren't the employees trained in how to use this device and where to find it?

NBC could learn a lesson from Butler University. On Sept. 13, 2003, Joseph Lamberti had almost completed the Lugar 5K on the Butler campus. Lamberti had been symptom-free all his life until that moment when he called out to his wife, Ida, for help and then immediately fell backward, out cold. A man next to Lamberti ran for the external defibrillator. He knew where it was because he was John Hind, the assistant athletic director and chairman of Butler University's Committee on Public Safety.

Hind was primarily responsible for Butler's decision to place an external defibrillator in every building on campus where people gather, and he saw to it that people were trained to use a defibrillator. Within three minutes, Hind activated the machine and restored Lamberti's heart to its regular rhythm. Soon after, emergency medical technicians arrived by ambulance and took Lamberti to the hospital, where he underwent a quadruple coronary bypass. Today, he lives an unlimited healthy lifestyle.

The death of celebrities often draws sharp focus to maladies that plague much of the population on a regular basis. According to the Heart Rhythm Society, an estimated 325,000 people suffer sudden death every year. Unfortunately for most of them, sudden death is the first manifestation of heart disease.

Recently, Dr. Eric Prystowsky, a partner with The Care Group in Indianapolis, was elected chairman of the Heart Rhythm Foundation with a mission to educate America about the need to place external defibrillators at appropriate venues and to educate the general population on their use. Why not start here in Indiana? The device is not difficult to operate. The machine is relatively inexpensive at approximately $1,300-well within the budget of most businesses.

I urge you to contact Prystowsky at eprystow@thecaregroup.comand learn how to obtain a device for your company and how to engage the Heart Rhythm Society in an educational program so that your employees and customers who experience a cardiac arrest will have a fighting chance to live until emergency medical technicians arrive.

Maurer is a shareholder in IBJ Media Corp., which owns the Indianapolis Business Journal. His column appears every other week. To comment on this column, send e-mail to mmaurer@ibj.com.
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