Without really noticing it, every day we’re surrounded by kit that can help keep us safe if the worst should happen.
Burn your toast in the morning, and it will probably set off the smoke alarm. At your office or workplace, you’re never far from the nearest fire extinguisher, and you may have a designated first-aider or fire warden. You probably know where the first aid kit is at home, even if it’s at the back of the drawer, and you may have a carbon monoxide detector, too.
But what about a device that could save your life if you had a heart attack?
“You’re more likely to die of a cause related to heart disease than you are in a fire,” says Bryan Finlay, the Scottish Ambulance Service’s community resuscitation development officer. “Many years ago some of the biggest killers in the UK were to do with electrocution, smoke inhalation and drowning,” he adds.
But not any longer. Today heart disease is one of the most common causes of death in the UK, with heart attacks killing someone every seven minutes.
Scotland has the worst heart attack rate in the UK.
When someone collapses from a heart attack, shocking the heart back into rhythm with a defibrillator as soon as possible is vital to increasing the chances of survival – after calling 999 and starting chest compressions. Yet most people have never seen one other than on television, and fewer still would know how to use one with confidence.
Mr Finlay and his colleagues at the ambulance service are on a mission to try and change that, giving people the confidence to use a defibrillator in an emergency by showing them how easy it is through hands-on lessons and demonstrations.
“Do people generally know how to use a fire extinguisher? Not really, but they’ll have a go if they need to,” Mr Finlay says. “That’s where we’re trying to get to with defibrillators.”
Breaking down that fear barrier is difficult. After all, the closest most people have come to seeing one is watching their favourite medical drama, where a patient is wheeled into an emergency room at breakneck speed, their heart monitor flatlining and a doctor shouting “clear!” before delivering a shock with two hand-held paddles.
That image has been left behind by the reality.
“This is where the myths have all come from. It makes it look like the only people who can do it are doctors and paramedics,” Mr Finlay says.
In reality, using a public-access defibrillator is almost as easy as dialling the speaking clock. The models used by the Scottish Ambulance Service are known as automated external defibrillators, or AEDs. The devices are programmed by doctors, and include a heart monitor within the pads that are applied to the chest. Many models also deliver audio instructions, and respond to interaction, repeating steps if needed.
The decision to deliver a shock to someone is effectively taken out of your hands – if the machine decides it isn’t necessary, it won’t do it.
“It gives you clear steps, and guidance when it’s needed,” explains Mr Finlay. “The machine makes the decision whether to shock a person or not.” All the user needs to do is follow the instructions, apply the paddles, and push a button.
Most people think defibrillators shock the heart back to life when it’s stopped. In fact, the two types of heart attack where a defibrillator can save lives involve abnormal or disorganised heart rhythms, where the muscle is still moving, but not in a way that pumps blood around the body.
If people are going to use defibrillators in an emergency, they need to be able to find them, and unlike fire extinguishers, they’re not around every corner.
“The issue is that there aren’t that many defibrillators anywhere, so people don’t go and look for them. What we need people to do is recognise the need for them, and hopefully one day, every place will have one,” Mr Finlay says.
“As far as I’m concerned, every new public building should have one. If you’re encouraging people to come to your facility, you need to safeguard them.”
They should be in central locations, and clearly signposted, Mr Finlay says. Costing around £2000 each, many are locked away in cupboards and boxes by owners worried they might be stolen, rendering them effectively useless.
“We don’t want the defibrillation to be delayed by seconds, because those seconds add up to be minutes,” he adds. “Time is against you.”