City employee saved in a heartbeat

A defibrillator at the city power plant enabled men to save a
co-worker’s life.
Sunday, July 3, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:33 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Workers at the city power plant are no strangers to emergencies. Their jobs require quick reactions to problems with machinery, and they’ve dealt with fires and explosions. Monthly safety meetings ensure that employees know where the oxygen tank and automated external defibrillator are kept and how to perform CPR.

“These guys have seen emergencies. … It’s just never involved a human life before,” said Tad Johnsen, superintendent of the power plant.

Defibrillators have been in select city buildings since 2003. On June 7, one was used for the first time and is credited with saving a life.

Barry Nichols and Daniel Dee were finishing up their shift just after 4 p.m., when they heard a thud and found a co-worker lying unconscious on the floor. Nichols ran to the control room to call 911, while Dee checked for a pulse and tried to revive his friend.

Virgil Nichols grabbed the defibrillator and, along with Ray Spencer, prepared to use their defibrillator training. Dee cut off the co-worker’s shirt with his pocket knife and Spencer placed the shock pads on the man’s chest. Together, the four men decided to administer an electric shock to a man they’ve been working with for more than 20 years.

His body jumped, the shock lifting him off the ground. Then his eyes began to flicker, and his friends were able to breathe a sigh of relief.

In the course of a few minutes, they were able to resuscitate their friend. By the time paramedics arrived, he was conscious and alert.

“The doctor said we saved his life,” Barry Nichols said.

The power plant employee, who is now recovering at home, declined through an intermediary to comment, and power plant officials are honoring his wishes to not be identified.

A $45,000 program started by the City Council in 2003 put 22 automated external defibrillators in government buildings around Columbia and provided emergency training for city employees over the past two years.

“It’s been wonderful that they’ve been able to act upon their training and save someone’s life,” said Dana Jones, a registered nurse and a city employee health instructor. “We can see that this program is working.”

Automated external defibrillators are portable machines used to restart a person’s heart during cardiac arrest and are designed to be operated by people with no professional medical training.

Sudden cardiac arrest causes 13 percent of workplace fatalities, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Cardiac arrest occurs when an irregular heart rhythm causes the heart to stop pumping. It can sometimes be reversed by administering cardio pulmonary resuscitation and defibrillation within seven to 10 minutes.

CPR keeps oxygenated blood flowing to the victim’s organs, but defibrillation — an electric shock to the heart — is usually necessary for the heart to start beating again.

Without treatment, a sudden cardiac arrest victim can die in minutes. An estimated 95 percent of sudden cardiac arrest victims die before making it to the hospital, according to the American Heart Association.

“Since we don’t have ambulances on every street corner, we can’t get there quick enough,” said Dr. Michael Szewczyk, chairman of the Board of Health who helped implement the defibrillator program. “The sooner you can do the defibrillation, the more likely it is you’re going to be able to save them.”

For every minute that a person is under cardiac arrest, their chance for survival drops by 10 percent, according to the American Heart Association.

“Those minutes are important,” Szewczyk said. “You’ve got about four minutes, after that you have a harder time reviving somebody and permanent brain damage can result.”

The Philips HeartStart AEDs that were purchased by the city give verbal instructions to administer shock and tell the rescuer everything from where to place the shock pads to when and how to deliver CPR. The machine analyzes heart rhythm, delivering a shock only when necessary.

“They’re very, very user-friendly,” Jones said. “They are designed for the layperson to be able to use them in an emergency situation.”

Free defibrillator and CPR training classes are offered to city employees through the Employee Health Division. Since the program was created, 265 employees have been trained according to American Heart Association guidelines.

“Most people that go through the training are very thankful,” Jones said. “It’s comforting to know that they’ll have the knowledge to know what to do.”

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