American Carries Defibrillators That Started Their Hearts in Flight

by Laura Griffin

   If their hearts had stopped beating somewhere else, Robert Giggey, Michael Tighe and Roger Schorack would probably still be dead.

   But each was brought back to life on board American Airlines planes with the help of portable defibrillators.

   During an emotional ceremony at American Airlines headquarters Friday, the three men thanked flight attendants and airline executives for giving them a second chance at life.

   "I’m not much of a praying person," said Roger Schorack, who suffered cardiac arrest while putting his bag above his seat before a scheduled flight from New York to Paris in January. "But I had a prayer that when I die, I want it to be sudden, quick and complete. And it was. But thanks to American Airlines, I’ve had to revise that prayer to whenever I die."

   The three men became among the first members of American Airlines’ Golden Heart Club, whose membership will include people saved by defibrillators and flight attendants and passengers who use the device to try to save lives.

   "It’s really a club to celebrate bringing people back," said Dr. David McKenas, Corporate Medical Director for American.

   Since the program began in July 1997, six people have been saved by the portable defibrillators that are now on board all of American Airlines’ 650 planes. And other airlines also have started putting them on board.

   They have also been used more than 100 times to monitor the hearts of passengers with cardiac problems.

   Robert Giggey was the first one saved. After he collapsed while boarding a flight from Dallas to Mexico City, a doctor on board felt for a pulse and said Mr. Giggey, whose heart was stopped for four or five minutes, was dead. But the flight attendant brought out the defibrillator and she and a paramedic brought him back to life.

   Mr. Giggey and his wife, who live in North Carolina, now lobby for widespread public placement of defibrillators .

   "At the time my husband died on the plane, ambulances and fire trucks in North Carolina didn’t have portable defibrillators," Carmen Giggey said. "Now they do. We have changed our state and local laws to allow lay people to use portable defibrillators."

   The portable defibrillator – which cost $3,000 each – is used to jump-start a person’s heart with an electric shock, and the portable ones used on airplanes "talk" the user through with audible instructions.

   "They’re idiot-proof," Dr. McKenas said.

   Every minute of delay after a cardiac arrest decreases the patient’s chances of survival by 10 percent.

   "Our own statistics showed we were losing too many passengers to this," Dr. McKenas said. "We decided we really should do something. We thought, "If we save one person, it will be worth it.’ "

   Michael Tighe was flying high above the Rocky Mountains on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles when he slumped in his seat. Fast-acting flight attendants used a defibrillator and the pilots diverted the plane to Denver.

   "After five shocks, I was alive again," said Mr. Tighe, who, before retiring, promoted the public use of defibrillators in his job at the Boston Department of Health but never thought he’d need one.

   "I was a runner, a swimmer and nonsmoker; the last question in my mind was "I wonder if this airplane has a difibrillator. "

   Flight attendant Berit Johnson is glad one was on board a flight in May from the Virgin Islands to New York.

   When one of her passengers was having a heart attack, she said, she thought it was a seizure, but the defibrillator told her and other crewmembers that his heart wasn’t beating and he needed a shock.

   "It’s a blessing to have them on board. You know that this is your shot and without this you can only do what you can do," she said. "You feel so helpless."

   When flight attendant Elaine Mueller-Herr used one on a passenger who collapsed at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, she said she kept thinking of her own father.

   "I would want someone to help my father if something happened to him," she said. "I was not going to let this man die on a dirty airport floor. You just think that whoever this is it could be someone’s mother or father or special in someone’s life."