- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2004

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (AP) — When rising prep football star Ryan Boslet suddenly went into cardiac arrest during a workout in his school gym, a portable defibrillator was only the length of a basketball court away in the athletic director’s office.

But it was never used.

A school staff member couldn’t figure out how to operate it. Coaches called 911, then administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to the 6-foot-4, 270-pound defensive tackle. The 17-year-old teen died later that day.

Ryan’s death a year ago points to a larger problem: Ordinary people, even with training, often can’t use the increasingly popular defibrillators under the pressure of an emergency.

“It’s not the box on the wall that saves a life — someone has to be trained to know what to do in an emergency and how to use it. That’s what saves a life,” said Robin McCune of the American Heart Association.

Chattahoochee High School had obtained its defibrillator only recently, and the model that it got was different from the one on which school officials had trained.

Because defibrillators are more affordable than ever, they are quickly becoming commonplace in schools, businesses and other public places such as airports. Health officials estimate 200,000 to 300,000 portable defibrillators exist in the United States, although the exact number is not known.

With the help of visual and verbal instructions, six people unfamiliar with the devices used them to revive heart-attack victims at Chicago’s airports — including the busy O’Hare International Airport — in 2002, according to a New England Journal of Medicine study.

Such success is not always the case. Experts say even trained operators can falter if they don’t regularly practice on defibrillators. Merely having the $2,000 devices is not enough.

“The device is very simple, but the situation is not very common,” said Mary Fran Hazinski of the American Heart Association. “When you find yourself in the midst of an emergency situation, it’s easy to get flustered.”

In the past 20 years, defibrillators have evolved to automatically detect the heart’s rhythm and decide whether it needs a shock.

In one report in a medical journal, volunteers had trouble opening the device’s packaging and failed to properly place the pads that deliver the shock.

Another study published last year indicated defibrillators were used only slightly more than a third of the time by rescuers in places where the devices were nearby. About four out of five people working outside the health care field couldn’t use them properly when training on mannequins, according to the December issue of the Journal of Dental Education.

That’s why groups such as the heart association and hospitals such as Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta are working to train more people about the warning signs of cardiac arrest, how to administer CPR and use the defibrillator.

A defibrillator certification program involves a four-hour course and needs to be renewed every two years. The heart association also recommends refresher training every 60 to 90 days.

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