Saving victims of sudden cardiac arrest through community action

December 10, 2013

A 19-year-old Gettysburg College student takes a routine jog through the battlefield.  Suddenly, she grows weak and collapses. It’s a sudden cardiac arrest.

Each year, more than 350,000 Americans suffer the same experience.  Less than 10 percent survive. 

An automated external defibrillator (AED) can make all the difference.  It sends an electric shock to the victim’s heart to restore a normal rhythm.

“An AED’s shock to the heart—when applied within six minutes after the event—significantly increases a person’s chance of survival,” said Deb Sheets, RN, WellSpan Community Health Improvement.

Sheets is the coordinator of WellSpan’s Operation Heartbeat program, which places AEDs across rural Adams County. Operation Heartbeat’s AEDs can be found in a variety of public spaces, and inside every police cruiser in the county.

“In many emergencies, police officers arrive on the scene first,” Sheets explained.  “So we’re placing AEDs in patrol cars and making sure the officers are trained on them.”

Fortunately for the young college student, Operation Heartbeat also stocks the ranger vehicles at Gettysburg National Military Park.  As she lay unconscious, an alert ranger retrieved an AED and applied its two sticky pads to her chest.  The briefcase-sized device went to work, analyzing her abnormal heartbeat and delivering its lifesaving shock. 

The student made a full recovery.  She graduated in the spring of 2013 and returned to thank the rangers.

At least five other people have been saved with Operation Heartbeat AEDs since the program’s inception in 2001. 

“When one of our AEDs saves a life, we recognize the law enforcement officer or community member who played a part in that save,” said Kevin Alvarnaz, director, WellSpan Community Health Improvement.

Recently, Operation Heartbeat replaced its 70 aging AEDs with brand new units—and added a dozen new ones—thanks to funding from a federal grant.  Nancy Newton, a grants officer with WellSpan, said federal officials were impressed by public outpouring for the program.

“All of the different police departments were so supportive of this project,” Newton said.  “So were the Gettysburg Adams Chamber of Commerce and the national military park.”

The federal grant also enabled Operation Heartbeat to begin offering free CPR and AED classes to the public.

“It’s not just about placing AEDs out there in the community,” Alvarnaz said. “It’s about training lay people in AED use, so that they feel ready to respond in the case of an emergency.”

For more information or to sign up for WellSpan’s CPR and AED classes, contact Kevin Alvarnaz at (717) 851-3232.