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Although it receives less publicity than many medical conditions, sudden cardiac arrest accounts for 310,000 deaths in the U.S. every year, or about 850 deaths a day, according to the American Heart Association.

But death from sudden cardiac arrest can be prevented by using a simple device called an AED, or automatic external defibrillator, says Dr. Stephen Pollock, chief of the cardiology division at St. Joseph Medical Center.

What is sudden cardiac death?

Sudden cardiac death is the result of a lethal heart rhythm called ventricular fibrillation. This occurs when the lower chamber of the heart fibrillates or doesn't contract in an organized fashion, resulting in no blood pressure and death.

What causes this abnormal, lethal rhythm?

The majority of people who have this abnormal rhythm have coronary heart disease, which includes the narrowing or blockage of the arteries of the heart. However, a small percentage of people who suffer these episodes have bad heart muscles.

But of those who have coronary artery disease (which is the No. 1 killer in this country), when you have sudden cardiac death, the first symptom is your last.

What happens with a sudden cardiac arrest?

Tim Russert [NBC News' Washington bureau chief and the moderator of Meet the Press] died of sudden cardiac death. He had a heart attack; blood to the heart is shut off, and the heart becomes electrically unstable.

If you don't get the heart rhythm back to normal in three minutes, your chances of dying go up astronomically, and after five or six you die. So you basically have a three-minute window to get the heart beating normally.

What is the treatment?

The treatment of this abnormal heart rhythm is an electric shock delivered in the first three minutes of the rhythm. There is a device called an AED that can be used to shock the heart back into a normal rhythm. ... The device is available at all the airports [and other places], but we haven't educated the public about what the device is or how to use it. If someone collapses, it can save lives.

Can anything be done to prevent sudden cardiac death from occurring?

For some people, the first symptom [of coronary disease] is sudden cardiac death, which highlights why it is so important to identify early on people who have coronary heart disease and get them treatment.

Treatment would include changes in your diet, exercise, stopping smoking, controlling high blood pressure and taking medicine like aspirin and a statin. All of that would be accompanied with appropriate cardiac testing and follow-up with a physician.

Why aren't AEDs - and the training to use them - more common?

I think the American Heart Association hasn't pushed them the way it should. And there are legal concerns about liability that the legislature hasn't addressed, so businesses are afraid to put them in because they aren't protected.

I think we need a national public education campaign about what an AED is and how to use it. If we educated the entire public, we would save lives.

Holly Selby


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