An AED – What is it? How does it help save lives?

An AED is an automated external defibrillator which provides an electric shock to a person experiencing cardiac arrest.

An AED – What is it? How does it help save lives? click to enlarge An AED, automated external defibrillator. Photo by Zoll® Medical Corporation
An AED – What is it? How does it help save lives? click to enlarge Paula Miller, MD

If you look around an office building, a restaurant, a shopping center, or most public buildings, you may notice a small box hanging on the wall labeled “Emergency Defibrillator.”  Inside this box is an AED, an automated external defibrillator.  An AED provides an electric shock to a person experiencing cardiac arrest.  While AEDs come in many different shapes and sizes, depending on the manufacturer, the basic components of every AED are a charging box with a lithium battery and an electrode pad to that delivers the electric charge to the person in need.

Fortunately, most AEDs that you see will never be used.  However, The University of North Carolina School of Medicine is not taking any chances.  Even though the majority of their 18 medical school buildings are within a stone’s throw of the world-class UNC Hospitals, they are installing an AED on the main floor of every building that does not already have one.

Paula Miller, MD, Associate Professor and Director of UNC Cardiac Rehabilitation and the UNC Women's Heart Program, explains that the standard is that if you have one cardiac arrest in five years in your building, you should have an AED.

“While we don’t have any statistics for our buildings, we aren’t taking any chances,” says Dr. Miller.

To a person without medical training, using an AED often sounds intimidating.  Not to worry, explains Dr. Miller.

“AEDs are very user-friendly and anyone can use them.  You can operate them in three simple steps,” says Dr. Miller. “One, you turn it on.  Two, most AEDs will now start talking to you, explaining exactly where to put the electrode pad.  If they don’t talk, they will have a digital readout.  Three, once the electrode pad is placed, the machine assesses whether or not the person needs a shock.  If they do, you simply push a button.”

However, without medical training, people may panic and try to shock someone who doesn’t need it.  “AEDs take out the guesswork,” reassures Dr. Miller. “You don’t have to worry about user error.  If the patient does not need shocked, the AED will not shock the patient, even if the user presses the button.”

Dr. Miller says, “CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation involving chest compressions) is saving lives every day.  A defibrillation machine provides another tool people can use to save someone’s life.  This is the real reason we have these.”

In 2009, North Carolina State Rep. Becky Carney collapsed with sudden cardiac arrest at her desk in the Legislative Building in Raleigh.  She was revived by coworkers who used an AED to restart her heart.

People in each UNC School of Medicine building will be trained to perform monthly checks on the machines, and the batteries will be changed as often as is recommended.  AEDs should be installed by the end of March 2013.