A few years ago, a coworker had a sudden cardiac arrest on the job. While emergency workers were able to get her heart back in rhythm, too much time had passed to prevent brain damage and she died two months later, leaving behind her husband and daughter.
Her death was one of the most devastating experiences I can remember. Not only did we lose a good friend, but also a valuable member of our team. I learned as much as I could about sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) and what to do to help someone that gets it. And I made a promise to make sure companies we work with know the importance of having the necessary tools readily available should such an incident occur.
According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, SCA is a condition in which the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating. If this happens, blood stops flowing to the brain and other vital organs. SCA usually causes death if it's not treated within minutes.
To better understand SCA, it helps to understand how the heart works. The heart has an electrical system that controls the rate and rhythm of the heartbeat. Problems with the heart's electrical system can cause irregular heartbeats called arrhythmias. During an arrhythmia, the heart can beat too fast, too slow or with an irregular rhythm. Some arrhythmias can cause the heart to stop pumping blood to the body – these arrhythmias cause SCA.
SCA versus Heart Attack
However, SCA is not the same as a heart attack. A heart attack occurs if blood flow to part of the heart muscle is blocked. During a heart attack, the heart usually doesn't suddenly stop beating. SCA, however, may happen after or during recovery from a heart attack.
People who have heart disease are at higher risk for SCA. However, SCA can happen in people who appear healthy and have no known heart disease or other risk factors for SCA.
Most people who have SCA die from it, often within minutes. Rapid treatment of SCA with a defibrillator can be lifesaving. A defibrillator is a device that sends an electric shock to the heart to try to restore its normal rhythm.
Sudden cardiac arrest is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. Over 350,000 people will suffer from sudden cardiac arrest this year, many of them while at work. Everyone is susceptible – from the petite secretary punching a stapler to a burly cowboy branding a steer. An automated external defibrillator (AED) is the only effective treatment for restoring a regular heart rhythm during sudden cardiac arrest and is an easy to operate tool for someone with no medical background.
Time-to-treatment is critical when considering the chance of survival for an SCA victim. Ninety-five percent of those who experience SCA die because they do not receive life-saving defibrillation within four to six minutes, before brain and permanent death start to occur. The average response time for paramedics to arrive on the scene is 8 to 10 minutes. Below is a very powerful visual that shows the chance of survival minute by minute.
Here are a few success stories from the American Heart Association:
- A 41-year-old worker at a manufacturer of heating and air-conditioning systems suffered a sudden cardiac arrest at work. After three shocks and CPR he was revived within four minutes. Fortunately, his company had AED’s and trained responders. By the time EMS personnel arrived, he had been resuscitated and was moved to a hospital. The employee survived.
- A 62-year-old employee of a coatings, glass and chemical manufacturer suffered a sudden cardiac arrest after walking up the stairs to her office. Employees in the next office heard her fall and notified the plant emergency response team. She was defibrillated and saved in less than two minutes. EMS personnel then arrived to transport her to the hospital. She sent a note to the company after her discharge from the hospital saying she had “no doubt that headquarters spent money wisely.”
- An employee at an automobile manufacturer was working on the production line when he suddenly collapsed, lost consciousness and stopped breathing. Plant security responded, and after two shocks with an AED, the employee's heart responded and his pulse returned. He's alive today thanks to the fast actions of his co-workers and the company's emergency response plan, which included AED installation and training.
Unfortunately, less than 33 percent of witnessed, out-of-hospital SCA victims receive bystander CPR according to data gathered from the Centers of Disease Control and the American Heart Association. I have made it my mission to get as many companies as possible trained in the American Heart Association’s “Five Links in the Adult Chain of Survival” and get an AED. This can improve chances of survival and recovery for victims of heart attack, stroke and other emergencies. The five links in the adult chain of survival are:
- Immediate recognition of cardiac arrest and activation of the emergency response system.
- Early cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) with an emphasis on chest compressions.
- Rapid defibrillation.
- Effective advanced life support.
- Integrated post-cardiac arrest care.
A strong chain of survival can improve chances of survival and recovery for victims of heart attack, stroke and other emergencies. Medical professionals will tell you that the last two links in the chain are worthless unless a trained bystander administers the first three links.
Losing an employee or coworker right in front of your eyes can have a devastating effect on the psyche of any workplace. In honor of my friend and co-worker, Linda E. Anderson, who passed away due to SCA, we created an award in her name we give to companies that make an AED available to their employees. So far we have given awards to five employers who represent 675 employees with 27 AEDs.
How many lives will that save? There’s no way to know. But if it helps just one employee go home to his or her family at the end of a workday, it’s well worth it.
Randy Boss is a certified risk architect at Ottawa Kent in Jenison, Mich. As a risk architect, he designs, builds and implements risk management and insurance plans for middle-market companies in the areas of human resources, property/casualty & benefits. He has 35 years experience and has been at Ottawa Kent for 31 years. He is a lead instructor for the Institute of Benefit & Wellness Advisors, training agents how to bring risk management to benefits. Randy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.