‘Shockingly’ easy: Busting the myths around public access defibrillators

It can be easier than you think to save the life of someone suffering a cardiac arrest.

It was just before Christmas 2017 when accountant Brett Orpwood went into cardiac arrest during a regular park run with his eight-year-old son in Ringwood, Victoria.

Despite being otherwise healthy and highly active, the 39-year-old collapsed with no warning.

Only the quick actions of fellow runners and a defibrillator saved his life.

“Fortunately Mullum Mullum Parkland had a brand-new public defibrillator, which ended up being used on me twice,” Greg says.

“I’m extremely fortunate to still be here and incredibly grateful I had so much good help around me.”

The dad of two is now on a mission to promote CPR and raise community awareness around public access defibrillators.

So what are the ins and outs of this lifesaving piece of equipment?

What to know about cardiac arrest

More lethal and unpredictable than a heart attack, sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating and is often caused by an electrical problem in the body.

Each year more than 30,000 Australians suffer a cardiac arrest, and only one in 10 survive.

It can occur at anytime, anywhere, to any person at any age, with little or no warning signs, leaving the sufferer unconscious and not breathing.

For survival, timing is everything

As soon as the heart stops beating, blood can no longer flow to the brain, heart and lungs meaning urgent treatment is required to restart it.

St John Ambulance says for every minute without CPR, the chances of surviving a cardiac arrest go down by 10 per cent. If there’s no intervention within eight minutes of cardiac arrest, chances of survival are slim.

What to do if someone goes into cardiac arrest

The three crucial things to remember when someone has suffered a SCA are to call 000, start CPR and apply a defibrillator (also known as an automated external defibrillator or AED) and shock.

Why is using a defibrillator so important?

Defibrillators apply a controlled electric shock to try to restart the heart and can dramatically increase the chance of survival when used in the first three to five minutes of cardiac arrest.

“Think of it as your car where the battery might go flat and you need to jump start it,” says Bill Stavreski, Heart Foundation general manager of heart health and research.

“It’s the same thing with the heart, the ‘defib’ really gets the heart’s electrical system going again.”

Public access defibrillators can be found in places such as sporting grounds, supermarkets, gyms and train stations, and feature the universal symbol of a heart with a lightning bolt through it.

How to use a public access defibrillator

While they may sound intimidating, Alison Osborne, of St John Ambulance, says AEDs are designed to be easy to use.

“They can be used by anyone, without training, and as soon as you turn it on there are voice prompts and pictures to guide you through exactly what to do,” she says.

“Call 000 first, but it’s important not to simply wait for an ambulance to arrive because defibrillation is most effective when done within the first few minutes.”

Can you harm someone (or yourself) with a defibrillator?

No, an AED will only give a “controlled shock” when it’s required and Bill says unlike Hollywood movies, using one won’t cause the cardiac victim to jolt up and flail around (or give you, the user, any sort of shock).

“One of the great things about a defib is that it’s safe to use, even if you get it wrong so it’s better to have a go and save someone’s life than to just sit back,” he says.

And that’s a sentiment Brett, now enjoying his second chance at life, agrees with.

“You never know when a loved one, a friend, or even a stranger is going to have a cardiac arrest,” he says.

“They can occur anytime and anywhere and so knowing CPR and knowing where to access a defibrillator can be the difference between life and death.”

Key things to know

  • Cardiac arrest can affect anyone, anywhere, any time.
  • For every minute without CPR, the chances of surviving cardiac arrest decrease by 10 per cent.
  • Public access defibrillators (also known as AED) are located in a wide range of community spaces and feature the universal symbol of a heart with a lightning bolt through it.
  • If someone suffers a cardiac arrest, call 000, start CPR and apply a defibrillator – don’t wait for an ambulance to arrive.
  • Defibrillators can dramatically increase chance of survival when used within three to five minutes of cardiac arrest.
  • Public defibrillators have voice prompts and pictures to guide users through the process.
  • You cannot harm yourself or another person with an AED – it will only give a “controlled shock” when it’s required.

Written by Liz McGrath.