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When a heart stops, every second counts

When Alan Rich woke up in the hospital six years ago, the last thing he remembered was standing on the tennis court: “I was about to serve and said, ‘OK, here comes an ace!’” Rich had collapsed from sudden cardiac arrest. The tennis court was equipped with an automated external defibrillator, or AED, which two doctors playing on an adjacent court used to shock his heart. Rich is one of the lucky ones. Of the more than 350,000 people per year who experience sudden cardiac arrest outside a hospital in the United States, more than 90 percent die; for many of those who survive, the difference is an AED. Rich, who has made a full recovery, and his Rotary Club of Lakeland, Florida, now work to supply AEDs to first responders.

Q: Did you have any warning signs of sudden cardiac arrest before it happened to you?

A: I never had any symptoms. I just crashed to the clay, and my buddy realized something was terribly wrong. Luckily, in the next court over, there were two doctors – one was an anesthesiologist I knew. Three shocks, and my heart started beating again. For all cardiac arrest, the survival rate is only around 6 percent for those attacks that occur outside a hospital. If an AED delivers a shock within the first three to five minutes after a person’s heart stops, the odds of survival are 60 to 70 percent.

Illustration by Monica Garwood

Q: What was your recovery like?

A: I was in a coma for three weeks. The doctors told my wife she needed to think about letting me go. She said, “No, no, no – keep trying.” The fourth time they took me off the respirator, I woke up. I recovered after that, but I had to relearn how to walk and talk. That was six years ago. I wake up every day feeling grateful.

Q: What made you decide to work with your club on this project?

A: I started thinking about it in recovery. My tennis buddy, Mark Hollis, was a district governor and the president of our club. Mark would come visit, and I said maybe the Rotary club could do something about this. I had learned that most communities do not have AEDs in police cars. These first-responder vehicles often get to the scene before medics do. Every minute that ticks by means roughly 10 percent brain loss, so after 10 minutes, you have basically no chance of surviving. 

Q: How did your club help?

A: We dedicated the proceeds from our yearly jazz festival fundraiser to buy AEDs for the entire Lakeland Police Department. We raised $130,000 that we gave to the police, and they bought 131 AEDs for their police vehicles.

Q: What do you hope other Rotarians learn from your experience?

A: This is not like a heart attack, when a blood vessel is plugged but the heart continues to beat. With sudden cardiac arrest, it’s a different matter. There could be an underlying issue; any type of asphyxia, like carbon monoxide poisoning, can also cause it. Several thousand kids have sudden cardiac arrest each year and die. Some have an arrhythmia, and the cardiac arrest is triggered by sports. Rotarians could help prevent some of these deaths by contacting their local police departments to see if they have AEDs in their patrol cars. If they don’t, provide them. It could save a life. 

– Vanessa Glavinskas

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