The wonder of modern medical technology is never more evident than when a life is saved. A medical emergency that would have ended in certain death or permanent injury years ago, can be turned around thanks to the design of innovative devices that can quickly render aid.
The Automatic External Defibrillator, or AED, is a portable electronic instrument that can detect life-threatening irregular heartbeats, also known as cardiac arrhythmia, and administer electric shocks, or defibrillation, to help the heart start beating regularly. Certain types of cardiac arrhythmia indicate a life or death situation, and the use of a defib can make all the difference. It is important to understand how AEDs work, their intended use, and what the dangers are.
When you hear the term “automated external defibrillator”, you may think of an EMT in an ambulance or a doctor in an emergency room applying large pads to a patient’s chest and yelling, “Clear!”, before applying a charge.
While that is one type of defibrillator (a manual external one, at that), it is not an AED. “Automated” refers to the fact that AEDs are designed to automatically detect whether defibrillation is necessary. Unlike the manual versions, which should only be used by medical professionals, automated defibrillators are intended for use by laypersons who ideally have had some type of training, especially as part of basic first aid, first responder, or basic life support education.
AEDs are designed to respond to two types of heartbeat irregularities:
Both conditions can lead to brain damage, cardiac arrest, and death, if left untreated. With both conditions, an AED can shock the heart back into a regular rhythm to pump blood regularly.
Defibrillators are not effective for shocking flat line or a-systole patterns “back to life.” That usually requires the use of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and some type of cardiac stimulant drug to establish a shockable rhythm, for which the AED can be used.
Use of a machine to apply a shock to jumpstart a heartbeat is a concept that dates to the late 19th century. In 1899, Swiss physiologists confirmed the restarting of a heart with electrical shocks through experiments on dogs.
In the 1930s, brothers Albert and Charles Hyman, respectively a doctor and electrical engineer, designed a machine inspired by the way a vehicle’s starter works when the engine is stalled. By 1947, Dr. Claude Beck confirmed the theory of restarting a heartbeat on a 14-year old patient whose heart stopped during surgery.
Although the first shock was unsuccessful, a second attempt resulted in success. Some thirty years later, the very first AED was introduced.
With time, AEDs became easy enough for people without medical backgrounds to use. Today, many facilities, including non-medical buildings, have AEDs all over the place, with some being required to have them by law.
It’s not uncommon to see AEDs mounted in building corridors like fire alarms and extinguishers. From office buildings to schools, the proliferation of these life-saving devices has also increased available training to operate them as part of an overall safety plan in many environments. Even without formal AED training, you should know what the dangers of a defibrillator are if you must use one.
Because AEDs are intended for use by laypersons, most devices include visual and audio prompts to guide a user through the steps.
Consider getting certified in CPR/AED training which is available for medical and non-medical professionals alike. This coursework can give you the knowledge and confidence to intervene if the need to use an AED ever arises. It is also a great idea if you work in an industry that requires completion of continuing education or professional development hours.
As expected, a device that can send an electrical shock through the body will have some precautions that you must follow to not only maximize the likelihood of saving someone’s life, but to make sure that no one is harmed by use of an AED.
While it is necessary to consider what the dangers of a defibrillator are, it is also important to clear up misconceptions about using automated defibrillators. Misunderstanding how an AED works and when it should be used can create a dangerous, if not deadly, situation.
Here are some things to remember:
AEDs represent a significant achievement in life-saving medical care. These devices can prevent cardiac arrest and death in people experiencing v-tech and VF.
While it is recommended that you seek official training on using an AED, you can use one to help render aid. “Good Samaritan” laws in most states protect volunteers from civil liability when using an AED to help save a life, so there is no good reason not to embrace the use of these portable devices at your office, other public spaces, or even your home.
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