Defibrillators save lives. They need to be widely available in public spaces

Sports fans watched in horror recently when NFL player Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field after being struck in the chest by an opposing player. I was one of them, glued to my TV and offering a silent prayer for the 24-year-old safety with the Buffalo Bills.

Fortunately, medical professionals acted quickly and used an AED — automated external defibrillator — to restart Hamlin’s heart. This immediate intervention is likely the reason he survived the incident and is, gradually, recovering. The high-profile nature of his injury has brought widespread attention to the incredible benefit of AEDs, which shock the heart into a proper rhythm.

And, more importantly, these life-saving devices can be used by virtually anyone during an emergency — not just those with medical training.

AEDs are remarkable because they remove any guesswork. Through simple illustrations and clear audio commands, most people can safely and quickly administer the device. AED use nearly doubles the rate of survival following an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest, according to a study published by the National Library of Medicine. Therefore, it is critical these devices are widely available — and easily accessible when a health crisis occurs.

Virtua Health, South Jersey’s largest health system, has long advocated for the distribution of AEDs to public spaces. In fact, through our philanthropic division, we have donated dozens of AEDs to fellow not-for-profit organizations throughout the region — from athletic associations to community centers to religious institutions. Years before my time with Virtua, my wife and I led an effort to purchase AEDs for the Haddonfield community — and I have heard they’ve helped save the day on several occasions.

As a cardiologist, I appreciate how every minute counts when someone is experiencing a cardiac event. In many ways, the people in my field depend upon everyday citizens to step up in an emergency, thus initiating a “chain of care” that often includes first responders, paramedics and hospital staff.

The health journey of a recent Virtua patient reinforces my point. A few months ago, Ken Hogan of Mount Laurel was out to breakfast with his family when he collapsed without warning. Fellow restaurant patrons raced to his aid and performed chest compressions, while the staff called 911. Emergency medical responders rushed to the scene and quickly began using an AED.

Hogan survived and recovered, likely due to those fast-acting good Samaritans, plus the rapid use of an AED. Last week, Virtua reunited Hogan, his family and the various people who cared for him during and following his heart attack. It was a profoundly moving gathering for all involved. But, as one of Hogan’s nurses said, “We don’t always get a happy ending.”

That’s why I’m urging everyone to act, to enable more of our friends, family and neighbors to have that second chance at life. Here are some steps we can take:

  • Identify (and memorize) the location of AEDs in places you visit frequently, such as your workplace, house of worship, supermarket or favorite recreational spot. Often, entrance doors have an AED sticker with a red heart. Once you start looking for AEDs, you may be surprised by how many you see.
  • Watch videos online that demonstrate how AEDs work. Greater familiarity with the devices will underscore just how simple they are to use, and will boost your confidence should you need to use one.
  • Enroll in a CPR class, and encourage your friends and family to participate, too. Virtua Health offers several community programs, including CPR for use on children and infants.

Dr. Reginald “Reg” Blaber, is executive vice president and chief clinical officer of Virtua Health, South Jersey’s largest health system and a not-for-profit organization based in Marlton. He is also a practicing cardiologist and the 2022 chair of the American Heart Association’s Southern New Jersey Fall Heart Walk.