by Edward F. Hines Jr.

Edward F. Hines Jr. is chairman of the American Heart Association.
What if you only had eight minutes to live? 

   The Massachusetts Legislature is currently considering a bill that would provide Good Samaritan protection to those involved in the distribution and use of automatic external defibrillators. Trial lawyers predictably oppose the measure. For our protection, however, as well as theirs, the measure should be passed.

   Each year in this country, more than 250,000 individuals die of what is called sudden cardiac arrest. This is a condition in which the heart begins to fibrillate and ceases to function effectively as a pump. When this happens the need for defibrillation is urgent – the chances of recovery decline roughly 10 percent a minute, and after eight minutes there is little or no chance of survival.

   Until recently, defibrillation equipment was expensive, sophisticated, and restricted to a hospital setting. So unless the victim’s collapse occurred reasonably close to a hospital, there wasn’t much chance of survival.

   The situation today has changed dramatically. In recent years, automatic external defibrillators have been developed. They are reasonably priced and easy to use.

   Nationally, the American Heart Association has trained thousands of individuals in the use of these new machines as part of its basic four-hour CPR course. Boston’s Office of Emergency Medical Services has been a pioneer in making this new technology available to the public and in training companies in the use of the new machines. Several local companies, among them Fidelity and Gillette, have taken the lead in making sure these life-saving machines and staff trained in their use are available in the workplace for the protection of their employees. However, much remains to be done.

   Liability concerns are one main barrier to the wide scale distribution of the device. Many employers and many landlords are concerned that their good deed, in making these machines available to their tenants and employees, will not go unpunished. Their concern is that in the litigious world we live in, they will be sued by the heirs of those for whom resuscitation efforts proved unsuccessful. Landlords are particularly skittish in this regard because they lack the more direct interest employers have in protecting their employees.

   Yet in a large, high-rise building, such as the one I work in, it’s far more effective to have the building security staff equipped with these machines and trained in their use, than to leave it up to individual tenants. The building security staff are there seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and, unlike tenants, they have the ability to commandeer elevators.

   All of us who work in downtown Boston are, by now, tired of the inconvenience and upheaval caused by the Big Dig. Given this disruption, the chances of a Boston EMS unit getting to my building and reaching the 35th floor where I work within eight minutes are not ones I would stake my life on. I would feel a lot better if there were people already in the building equipped with these machines, trained in their use, and able to commandeer the building elevators.

   Statistics show that when portable defibrillators are made widely available in a community, death rates from sudden cardiac arrest decline substantially, sometimes as much as 50 percent. That would translate into saving 3,000 lives each year in the Commonwealth.