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This bill could help Detroiters survive sudden cardiac arrests

The proposed legislation would give schools grants for automated external defibrillators (AEDs) and equipment replacement, as well as broad CPR and AED training.
Elizaveta Tomashevska/Elizaveta - stock.adobe.com
The proposed legislation would give schools grants for automated external defibrillators (AEDs) and equipment replacement, as well as broad CPR and AED training.

Millions looked on in horror when 25-year-old Buffalo Bills’ safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field in January, as first responders rushed to administer CPR and revive him with a portable defibrillator.

Last year, it was a 26-year-old half-marathon runner in Detroit. Three years ago, it was a University of Detroit Jesuit high school hockey player on the ice at a Hazel Park rink. While exceedingly rare for otherwise healthy young athletes, all three experienced sudden cardiac arrest and survived, thanks to the swift actions of bystanders and the use of an automatic external defibrillator (AED).

Now, Hamlin and a bipartisan group of lawmakers are backing legislation they say could help save more lives: The Access to AEDs Act would use federal resources to give schools grants to purchase AEDS and provide mass training on how to use them. It would also pay to replace outdated equipment and allow athletic departments to do better heart screening programs for student athletes.

That could be especially significant for Detroiters, said Dr. Joshua Greenberg, a cardiologist at Henry Ford Health. “Detroit historically has had a poor response through the emergency medical system to life threatening calls, particularly ambulance calls,” he said.

“In the early 2000s, prior to the Detroit bankruptcy, Detroit was actually the worst city in the nation with regards to the time at which it took EMS to arrive at an emergency such as a cardiac arrest. Fortunately, that has improved to now where the average response time is about 8 minutes. But we know that with the majority of patients that suffer sudden cardiac arrest, immediate CPR and immediate defibrillation is the most important thing in order to have a good outcome.”

Still, only about 6% of Detroiters with non-traumatic, out-of-hospital cardiac arrests survive, according to a 2018 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association. Greenberg said nationally, that figure is closer to 10%. In Michigan, he said, a member of the public only provides resuscitation efforts about 20% of the time — but that could be higher if more AEDs were available in public spaces like schools, and more people had the training to make them feel comfortable using them.

“It’s intimidating to put an AED on somebody and start resuscitative efforts, whether people are concerned about doing something wrong, harming the person, or medical liability,” he said. “But … these automated external defibrillators are very automated. They're meant for even a child to use them. They don't require medical training. … They actually walk you through how to use them."

"If we have widespread utilization of AEDs, it doesn't require a doctor or a nurse or first responder. Anyone in the public can utilize these," Greenberg said.

In an emailed statement, Detroit Public Schools Community District superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti said the district has AEDs “in each of our schools, but we support any funding to assist in replacing the AEDs and/or their batteries and expanding their access in each of our schools so that there is more than one.”

Nationally, roughly 350,000 U.S. adults go into cardiac arrest outside of a hospital each year, bystanders administer CPR only about 40% of the time, according to the American Heart Association, and “only about 1 in 10 people who have cardiac arrests in public get this type of help.”

Sudden cardiac arrest is far more rare in athletes, happening in just one in 40,000 to 80,000 cases. But it can be fatal: Cartier Woods, a senior high school basketball player at Detroit Northwestern, collapsed at a game earlier this year and died.

“Unfortunately, in Detroit, we had an incident with a student athlete, and a poor outcome, because of the time it took for resuscitative efforts,” Greenberg said. “It can be devastating for a community when a young, otherwise healthy athlete has an incident like this.”

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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