All the holiday stress, dehydration and alcohol consumption at this time of the year can lead to something called “holiday heart syndrome.” It’s an irregular heartbeat that often presents in people who are otherwise healthy.
If someone collapses around you, you might be able to save their lives with an automated external defibrillator, or AED. But public health experts say there aren’t nearly enough of them out there.
If someone is having a heart attack, look for a box with the AED logo. It’s a heart with a lightning bolt through it. Grab the AED, hook it up to the person and the AED does the rest. They are amazingly effective at saving lives.
“They’re incredibly important. They can make the difference between life and death. They’re so easy to use. There’s no reason why anyone who’s anywhere near an AED shouldn’t use it,” says Ernesto Rodriguez, the head of Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services.
But you have to be near an AED in order to use it. And across Travis county, there are only about 1,700 of them, according to EMS.
The American Heart Association says for an AED to be useful, you should be able to deliver defibrillation within three to five minutes after someone collapses. Travis County’s goal is to have them within four minutes of everyone. Some areas meet that goal, like at the airport.
“Where it’s lacking, and I think this is true across the US, is in the metropolitan areas," says Rodriguez. "The shopping centers, the downtown areas. It’s more difficult to tell where they’re located, how many there are, and how many you still need.”
And they aren’t cheap. Most AEDs start around $1,500, although you can find them for less. But some organizations give them away. The Heart Hospital of Austin handed out eleven of them.
“I was really surprised at a lot of the organizations that applied for our program. Intuitively, I would think they already had an AED. Such as Stephen F. Austin Hotel, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Zach Theater,” says Richard Woehl, a spokesman for the Heart Hospital.
AEDs are required in public schools and nursing homes in Texas, thanks to laws passed by the state legislature in 2007 and 2009. And in the last regular legislative session of 2013, state lawmakers enacted a less expensive rule that is aimed at saving heart attack victims: requiring that students in grades 7 through 12 learn CPR. In fact, that’s an increasing focus of Austin and Travis County.
"Because the fact of the matter is that the immediate chest compressions are so critical in survival till an AED arrives. And that’s just greater impact for greater numbers for survival rates," says Hillary Higdon, a local firefighter who's responsible for helping to organize community CPR training.
Higdon says they have a 10-minute CPR training course. And about 20-thousand people have taken it.
So if we’re doing a cost-benefit analysis, would it be better to take the $1,500 you could spend on an AED and use that money to train a few hundred people with basic CPR skills?
It’s a complicated question says Dr. Richard Bradley, head of EMS and Disaster Medicine at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston.
“We don’t have perfect science on where’s the best place to invest our money," says Bradley. "CPR saves lives. But it saves lives by buying time. Defibrillators save lives by fixing the problem.”
So public health officials may be best served by taking at least a two pronged approach, and emphasizing both CPR education and wider distribution of AEDs.