The thought of having a sudden cardiac arrest away from medical help is a frightening one. Sudden cardiac arrest is when the heart suddenly stops beating. A problem with the heart’s inbuilt electrical system leads to an abnormal heart rhythm — most commonly ‘ventricular fibrillation’ or ‘V-fib’. This is a medical emergency that needs to be treated right away.
This article by journalist Glenn Morrison appeared in the recent BUPA corporate subscriber newsletter, Wellness.
The only way to stop V-fib is a treatment called ‘defibrillation’.
This involves using a device (an automated external defibrillator or AED) to send an electrical shock to the heart.
This shock can sometimes get a normal heart rhythm started again but it has to be done early on in the emergency chain of survival.
Sudden cardiac arrest is most likely to happen in people who already have a heart problem, whether they know about their heart problem or not.
It has been referred to as a silent killer — because it can happen to anyone, anywhere and at any time or age.
The precise number of people in Australia who die from sudden cardiac arrest annually is not known at this point in time.
According to University of Western Sydney Occupational Health and Safety researcher Dr Don Dingsdag, the nearest estimates range from 23,000 and 33,000 deaths per year — more than breast cancer, shootings and road crashes combined.
Year 12 soccer hopeful Brad Golding1 is lucky to be alive after he collapsed at training in Perth one evening in 2013.
Luckily two mates knew first aid, and paramedics were only 7 minutes from the field where the 16-year-old had been training when he started to cough blood.
The paramedics were able to defibrillate Brad in time. Others have not been so lucky.
When a 19-year-old Victorian collapsed after a cardiac arrest during football training in May 2010, a defibrillator couldn’t be sourced for 22 minutes — too late to save him.
The following year, a man collapsed at a Washington gym. Unfortunately, the gym’s defibrillator didn’t work — its batteries had been removed when they lost charge and were never replaced. The man died.
But happier stories abound.
Like that of businessman Michael Williams who had a sudden cardiac arrest at Sydney's busy Central Railway Station in 2011.
Mr Williams could not have been more fortunate — only 30 metres away, mounted for quick access on a thoroughfare wall, was a state-of-the-art AED.
Just as importantly, trained Sydney Trains staff knew exactly what to do, and were on the scene within minutes.
The defibrillator was part of a monitored system — more broadly, it was one component in a co-ordinated network of equipment by Sydney Trains across its stations and public thoroughfares.
The program, managed by Sydney-based group Cardiac Responder, includes monitoring and maintenance of the defibrillators and targeted training of staff.
Although he recalls little of the incident, Mr Williams was glad to be able to tell the story of survival to his 14 grandchildren.
These and so many other examples from across the globe point to one factor that can drastically improve your chances of surviving a sudden cardiac arrest — be near a functional defibrillator when it happens.
That’s why the Cardiac Arrest Survival Foundation, a charity dedicated to reducing needless deaths from out of hospital cardiac arrests, has declared October to be ‘Defib Awareness Month’ or Shoctober — to help spread the word that properly-implemented AEDs can save lives.
AEDs provide automated heart rhythm analysis, voice commands, and deliver a shock. When the heart stops beating, an AED can shock the heart back to normal rhythm.
But very minute that passes without a heartbeat reduces your chance of surviving by 10 per cent.
Unfortunately, research indicates that about 75 per cent of sudden cardiac arrests happen away from a hospital, with a survival rate of just 6 per cent.
Increasingly, the time taken for an ambulance to reach you through traffic means help may arrive too late.
What many people don’t realise is that even an untrained passer-by, given access to an AED, can help prevent death.
But exactly how many lives might be saved depends on the AEDs being readily to hand and in working order at the crucial moment.
In Australia, the number of deployed AEDs is unknown, as is their reliability, according to Dr Don Dingsdag of the University of Western Sydney.
Given this, your likelihood of surviving a sudden cardiac arrest in 2014 is largely a matter of chance.
A new organisation called the AED Deployment Registry believes that saving lives should not be left to chance.
The Heart Foundation and Australian Resuscitation Council also believe greater access to AEDs is crucial to help increase survival rates during emergencies.
Sports Medicine Australia advocates a wider rollout of AEDs within Australian sporting clubs, and St John Ambulance offers discounts for defibrillators and free training to community organisations.
Meanwhile, the AED Deployment Registry is lobbying for improved access to defibrillators in workplaces and public spaces, such as on public transport, at schools, sports facilities and in shopping centres.
Guidelines for the proper deployment of defibrillators known as The Defibrillator Deployment Guidelines are available on their website at www.aeddr.com.
To find out about running a workplace defibrillator awareness programme this Shoctober, visit the Shoctober website.
Your workplace can show its support by ordering a DefibMat, an easy to use device that simulates the use of a defibrillator while you watch a five-minute video.
1 Brad Golding’s story was published by the West Australian in 2013 — see
It appears online in various locations, including YouTube, and is widely cited.
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Cardiac Arrest Survival Foundation
Established in March 2006 as a registered charity in Australia, the Cardiac Arrest Survival Foundation is the first Australian non-profit organisation to be focussed on cardiac arrest survival and the proper deployment of defibrillators. Founding directors the late Dr Jeff Wassertheil, Dr Don Dingsdag, Louise Owen and Reno Aprile shared a passion to enhance public understanding of cardiac arrest survival. They embraced both the opportunity and obligation to help save thousands of lives a year, and created the foundation with exactly this aim. Shoctober is defibrillator awareness month — an initiative of the Cardiac Arrest Survival Foundation. www.shoctober.org.au/.