by Chris Meehan

   Several area businesses and agencies have either purchased or are planning to buy the portable life-saving devices.

   Robert Townsend knew all about the new technology his employer had purchased to save the lives of heart patients.

   As supervisor of the hazardous materials response team at Amway Corp., the 54-year-old Ada resident had been trained to use a portable defibrillator should a fellow worker go into cardiac arrest.

   Happy that Amway had three devices on hand, Townsend never thought one would be used to jump-start his heart — until it was on Jan. 24.

   "The people in our security department got to me in about two minutes," said Townsend, who was exercising in Amway’s fitness center when his heart went into an abnormal rhythm and he collapsed.

   "I’m very grateful. I’m one of the lucky ones."

   Paramedics, police officers and firefighters have had access to automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) for more than a decade. About three years ago, companies started selling models that are smaller, cheaper and easy to use for the lay person. As a result, they have become available in airports, arenas, businesses, schools, and other places across the country.

   In West Michigan, Amway officials were pioneers in bringing on board the $3,000, laptop-computer-size machines. But in recent weeks a number of local companies, as well as schools, have either purchased or are thinking about buying the defibrillators .

   "They are catching on like wildfire," said Sarah Poole, program director for the West Michigan chapter of the American Heart Association.

   The Heart Association, as well as the Red Cross of West Central Michigan, has just started to train non-medical people to use the defibrillators .

   "This is going to boom and take off, and why not?" asked Cathy Dewing, a local Red Cross training expert. "These machines are programmed to do the job."

   Spartan Stores, Home Depot outlets, Bissell Inc., Van Andel Arena, Delphi Automotive System in Coopersville and two high schools in Grand Haven are among the locations that have recently obtained or are close to getting the machines, according to John Endres, director of sales for West Michigan Health & Safety, one of the companies selling machines.

   "My prediction is that they will one day be as popular as fire extinguishers," Endres said. "People have heart attacks at work and in public places all of the time. These will help save lives."

   About 350,000 Americans this year will collapse and die of cardiac arrest — their hearts suddenly stop beating. Without warning, the electrical impulses that pump the heart go haywire and heartbeat stops.

   Every minute spent waiting for paramedics to show up after a cardiac arrest lowers the chance of survival by 10 percent. Depending on where you live or work, it could be several minutes before help arrives, experts say.

   "It makes a lot of sense to have defibrillators available where there are large numbers of people and there is the likelihood of cardiac arrest," said Dr. Jon Krohmer, medical director of Kent Emergency Medical Services, the group that oversees emergency medical care in Kent County and part of Ottawa County.

   But Krohmer cautions that not everyone who has a cardiac arrest could be helped by these machines.

   Some hearts goes into a type of faltering rhythm that can’t be brought back by the electric shocks administered by the machines, he said.

   In addition, he said, many businesses and other locations are within ready access of ambulance services. They don’t need the portable devices.

   "I think it’s unreasonable to think that every business and every school should purchase one of these," the physician said. "These machines serve a purpose, but they are only one link in the chain of survival."

   That chain includes calling 911 and performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) while someone gets the portable defibrillator . "My fear is that people might buy them and view them as the cure all," said Poole at the heart association.

   Officials at Spartan Stores purchased four of the machines in February to serve 1,600 employees at the nearly 1,000,000-square-foot complex in Byron Center. Many employees have undergone four hours of training to use the machines.

   "Our response time to an incident will be two minutes or less," said Roger Antonides, Spartan’s occupational and health safety coordinator. "Fortunately, we haven’t had to use them yet."

   Steve Wolbrink, a safety trainer at Herman Miller, Inc., said his company is thinking about buying AEDs. But right now the response time from ambulance companies is good, and the paramedics are equipped with the machines. "We just have to decide is it appropriate for Herman Miller to purchase them," Wolbrink said.

   Tom Boven, a Grand Haven attorney who has had three heart attacks, has worked to raise money to get AEDs put in Lakeshore area schools. He is also working with the heart association to encourage Holland and Grand Haven businesses to buy them.

   "These machines may cost some money," said Boven, who has not needed to be shocked after his heart attacks. "But people who have a cardiac arrest are instantaneously in trouble. Without immediate help, they die."