Almost every television show that has a paramedic in it has someone who has suffered cardiac arrest and needs an automated external defibrillator (AED). The actor starts cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on the victim and then yells “Clear!” as they use the device to restart the patient’s heart. It’s a scary process and most of the time, everyone sighs relief as the paramedic announces, “We have a pulse,” and rushes them off to the hospital.

In real life, approximately 735,000 Americans suffer a heart attack each year. According to statistics from a 2018 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, 525,000 are first-time incidents, while 210,000 occur in individuals who have previously experienced a heart attack.

There are major differences between a heart attack and cardiac arrest. A heart attack is a “plumbing” problem in which the victim will usually have some warning signs. These signs differ between men and women. They can occur moments before an attack or, in the case of women, may be gradual and lead up to a heart attack after days or even weeks. The heart continues to beat during a heart attack.

Though heart attacks are extremely dangerous, sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) is much worse. SCA is an “electrical” problem in which the heartbeat becomes erratic, stops and is unable to pump oxygenated blood to the rest of the body. SCA can occur as a result of a heart attack or on its own. If you witness someone suddenly collapse and find that they are not breathing, they are most likely suffering from cardiac arrest and require immediate CPR and defibrillation to survive. This is where an AED can be a lifesaving implement.

According to the American Heart Association, CPR is imperative and if an AED is available, it should be immediately used on the victim. The heart must be defibrillated quickly, because a victim’s chance of surviving drops by seven to 10 percent for every minute a normal heartbeat isn’t restored.

AEDs are portable medical devices with a built-in computer that can determine if a shock is needed. If the device senses the heart has stopped beating, it sends an electric shock in an attempt to restart it. The AED will not deliver one if it senses even a faint heartbeat. It can also continue to determine whether the heart falls into a “shockable” rhythm while CPR is continued. If it is needed, the AED’s shock allows the heart’s natural pacemaker to kick in and resume the patient’s normal rhythm. It’s not uncommon for some cardiac arrest victims to need more than one shock.

There has been some controversy about the use AEDs, but according to the American Heart Association and CDC, it’s important to have access to these machines in public places. As expeditious as our EMTs are, sometimes waiting for them may be too late.

The AED’s heartbeat sensing ability is safety net. Each machine has explicit instructions and will verbally walk you through the process in an emergency. Most people with regular access to an AED have been trained by the manufacturer or another class, but for those who are untrained and must act immediately, there are step-by-step instructions.

In most cases, every second is crucial. The longer the victim remains without oxygen flowing to the brain, the higher the risk that, if they survive, irreparable brain damage will occur. This may be scary information, but it’s extremely important.

There are both federal and state laws regarding where AEDs are required, as well as their physical placement. From what I’ve read and deciphered, the consensus of opinion is that AEDs save lives and are safe to use. They are used by non-medical personnel such as fireman, police, security guards and flight attendants, making it possible for more people to respond immediately in a crisis. With the easy-to-follow verbal instructions, formal training is suggested but not required. They are intended for use by the general public and are highly effective.

I pray that I never have to use an AED, but if the situation ever arises I will be prepared and, hopefully, able to save a life. Heart patients who have a cardiologist are urged to ask about these devices.

If you wish to know more or get trained, you can visit You can also call 877-AHA-4CPR for a training location near you.

Marla Luckhardt is a Brentwood resident who works with senior care and advocacy groups. Email her at