In the time it takes you to read this section, several Americans will die from sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). Most likely, dropping dead will be the first indication of a serious heart condition. Friends and relatives may be told that their loved one suffered a "massive heart attack." More likely, their loved one died from SCA, a preventable and treatable condition.
If you are surprised, you are not alone. Most people have never heard of SCA, yet it claims more lives each year in the United States than colorectal cancer, auto accidents, breast cancer, prostate cancer, firearms, AIDS and house fires combined.
Each day 700 people die from SCA. It affects people of all ages, from all ethnic backgrounds, smokers and non-smokers alike. What does 700 people look like? Imagine four fully-loaded 737 aircraft crashing every day and you will have a sense of the magnitude of this public health crisis.
In my work, I have been honored to meet and get to know scores of SCA survivors from across the U.S. They are the fortunate few, the ones who did survive, thanks to immediate bystander response, 9-1-1 access, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), and use of a defibrillator. If these crucial steps had not occurred in rapid succession, these survivors would not be with us today.
When I served as executive director of the National Center for Early Defibrillation, a program of the University of Pittsburgh from 2000-2005, we celebrated our first gathering of SCA survivors in Washington D.C. in 2003 and formed a community—a new "tribe." There were 42 survivors from 20 states, ranging in age from 12 to 74. We celebrated by listening to their stories, singing "Happy Re-Birthday" before a giant cake, and working on ways to help save the lives of future victims. In 2004, we hosted a similar gathering.
I was privileged to meet James Mc Cooey, a 12-year-old from New York, who suffered SCA while swimming laps and who survived because his twin brother, Jacob, pulled him from the pool and someone had the foresight to place automated external defibrillators (AEDs) in his school...Kathy Jensen, a teacher from Iowa, who was saved at the age of 47 because her son had just learned CPR in school and the local police department arrived quickly with an AED... Henry Jampel, MD, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Ironman triathlete, whose friends provided CPR for 27 minutes and kept him alive until a defibrillator arrived...Paula Opheim, a 21-year-old student at Purdue University in Indiana, who collapsed while running, but survived because campus police carry AEDs... Mari Ann Wearda, who was 59 when she suffered SCA while driving, but was resuscitated by a Hamptom, Iowa police officer equipped with an AED... Jim Baum from California who collapsed at home at the age of 58 but survived because he had purchased an AED in case he would ever need to help his neighbors—never imagining he would be the one who would need the treatment first.
When I have spoken with survivors, I have been struck by the fact that most of them recount uncanny sets of "coincidences"—various people were brought together to the right place at the right time with the right lifesaving equipment. Angels, if you will—and no one could ever convince them otherwise.
The thing is, SCA survival does not have to depend on coincidence. If more people understood the importance of getting involved immediately when someone collapses, if more people knew how to give cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), and if automated external defibrillators (AEDs) were readily available in more workplaces, schools, sports facilities, fitness clubs, hotels, places of worship, and homes, we could save tens of thousands of lives each year.
And if more at-risk people were identified in advance, they could be protected through implantable cardioverter defibrillation (ICD) therapy. Just think--if the average survival SCA rate increased from 7 to even 20 percent— a very realistic and achievable goal—50,000 lives could be saved each year.
The beautiful thing about the survivors I have met is that they know they were saved for a reason. They know they are here today so they can be with their families and friends. They know they are here today so they can help us all understand what matters most in life. They know they are here today so they can give back…so they can serve as instruments in the divine plan to help save more lives. Their gift of renewed life is something that can be multiplied many times over as they seek to help their families, friends, and communities challenge the scourge of sudden death.
Let us learn from the survivors in our midst and work together to cultivate a world in which survival from sudden cardiac arrest is no longer a rare event, but rather, the expected outcome.