Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating. It can affect people of all ages, anywhere – and left untreated, can cause death in just minutes.
Despite living a heart-healthy lifestyle, many times SCA cannot be prevented or predicted. However, there are life-saving measures available. "No matter how many heart screenings we do, we will not pick up 100 percent of the conditions that cause SCA," says William Scott, M.D., Pediatric Cardiac Electrophysiologist at Children's Health℠, and Associate Vice Chairman for Multidisciplinary Programs and Professor of Pediatrics at UT Southwestern. "Having an emergency SCA plan in place and an automated external defibrillator (AED) just a minute's walk away can make all the difference in getting care to the child right away."
Fortunately, due to a law passed in 2007, all Texas public schools are required to have an AED on campus. Learn more about AEDs and how they can help save a child's life.
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What is an AED and who can use one?
An AED is a portable device that delivers an electric shock to the heart. This shock can keep a person stable until professional medical help arrives. An AED works by measuring the heart's rhythm and delivering a shock to restore a normal rhythm. Along with CPR, AEDs can improve a child's chance of surviving SCA.
The device is easy to use and can be administered by non-medical personnel. While first responders, including police and firefighters, have been formally trained in AED use, a parent, coach or student can administer the AED if someone is experiencing cardiac arrest. AEDs should be used as soon as possible.
AEDs come with clearly labeled instructions for where to place pads, and a voiceover talks the helper through the process. However, school staff, including teachers, coaches and trainers, should all participate in regular, formal training to ensure they understand the emergency action plan and how to use an AED before an emergency arises.
When to use an AED
An AED should be used if a person is experiencing SCA. Signs of SCA include suddenly collapsing or losing consciousness. Breathing may be irregular or nonexistent, and you usually will not be able to find a pulse. Young victims of SCA are often athletes at sporting events or practices, which is why AEDs should be located close to gymnasiums or athletic fields. Non-athletes can also experience SCA, so AEDs should be placed appropriately throughout the school.
Do not use an AED if the victim is wet or lying in water or if there are combustible materials around. Also do not use if in a moving vehicle, as the device may not be able to pick up the appropriate rhythm. In addition, do not use an AED if the victim has a pacemaker (you should be able to tell if they have a lump on the chest), and do not place the pads of an AED over top of medication patches. Finally, make sure the pads are appropriate for the victim, especially with children under age 8. Do not use adult-sized pads for small children.
How to use an AED
Once you retrieve the AED and bring it to the person experiencing SCA, remove the machine from its case and turn on the power. The AED will then begin voice prompts, walking through verbal instructions for every step of the process. First, the device asks you to remove any clothing from the patient's chest. You will then peel the pads from their plastic liners and place on the victim's chest. The AED includes pictures that indicate where on the chest the pads should be placed.
The machine then asks you to stand clear from the victim while analyzing the victim's heart rhythm. It will either advise that no shock be given, in which case you should immediately begin CPR, or that a shock is advised.
If a shock is advised, the AED asks that you stand clear of the victim while the machine charges. Once charged, the button that administers the shock will start blinking and the AED will prompt you to press it. You should stay clear of the victim until the AED advises you to start performing CPR for two minutes, after which the machine reanalyzes the victim's heart. Continue the process until emergency medical services arrives.
How you can help save a life
"Though SCA is rare in children, always being prepared means there is less chance of a tragedy," says Dr. Scott. "Parents and schools can work together to ensure that safety is top of mind."
First, ensure your child's school has an emergency preparedness plan in place that includes provisions for SCA. Make sure the plan covers not just daytime activities, but also any morning or evening sports practices and games that take place on nights and weekends – including away games. It is particularly important to be sure there are enough AEDs to cover all school-related activities.
In addition, encourage that all teachers, coaches and athletic trainers are trained in CPR and using an AED, and that they have practiced in conjunction with the emergency preparedness plan.
If your child does have a medical history which might cause SCA, make sure you take extra care to ensure the adults he or she works with every day understand the signs of SCA and the proper procedures for using an AED and performing CPR. Awareness and taking time to learn these techniques can save a life.
The nationally renowned team of pediatric cardiologists and subspecialists at Children's Health treat the whole spectrum of pediatric heart problems, with a commitment to excellence. Learn more about our programs and treatments.