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Teaching how to save a life

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Although sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in the United States - more than the total death rate for breast cancer, lung cancer and HIV/AIDS combined - increasing awareness about how to help victims is an ongoing challenge.

According to the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association, nationally less than 7 percent of those who experience SCA outside of a hospital survive, and those that do often face neurological problems after the brain has been deprived of oxygen during an attack.

"The chances of surviving SCA can be drastically improved and increased by a community effort to train people on how to do CPR, how to use an automatic external defribrillator (AED) and to place AEDs in multiple locations," said Randy Fischer, president and CEO of Stevens County EMS.

As part of Sudden Cardiac Awareness Month this October, Stevens County EMS is stepping up its outreach efforts and working to improve SCA survival rates by increasing community awareness education and working with local and state partners to collect data and implement the most current research on SCA treatment.

Community education

A major part of improving SCA survival rates is early response, which happens when community members are trained in effective CPR techniques and there is access to AEDs in the community, said Josh Fischer, operations director for Stevens County EMS.

Part of Stevens County EMS' focus on community education is their half-hour "How to Save a Life" class, which the organization offers for free to any local organization, school, church or business. They also offer a free CPR/AED class on the first Saturday of each month at the ambulance garage.

"We'll go out and talk about the importance of CPR and defibrillation to anyone who wants to listen, really," said Josh.

The class covers the importance of both traditional and hands-only CPR, using an AED and survivor stories to give listeners a perspective on why CPR is important, said Josh.

"People are being saved by AEDs and people that use AEDs," added Josh. "It's because of efforts by all these groups of people that are going out and teaching people to do CPR and use an AED."

Recently, Josh got to try teaching the class in a new way - using a Spanish interpreter to work with employees at Riverview Dairy.

"It was a neat experience, something that we hadn't done before," said Fischer. "And obviously a good organization to work with since they do have such a positive presence and large presence in the county."

Another important component of community education is the first responder class offered through both Morris Area High School and Hancock High School. Both Randy and Josh got their start in health care taking the first responder class. Today, more than 80 percent of the students who have taken a version of the first responder class remain in the medical field.

"It's amazing the people that are involved that get their start from the class," said Randy. "It's something that we'll continue to support as an ambulance company because we know how important it is."

Forming partnerships along the survival chain

However, early response is not the only factor in increasing survival rates for SCA. Josh said the "chain of survival" - calling 911, quick CPR, early defibrillation, early advance care (first responders), and effective emergency room care and transports - is another vital component.

"We're fortunate in Stevens County to have a good system," said Josh. The rest of the chain - from law enforcement and fire department first responder teams all the way to local medical facilities and transportation to more advance cardiac care centers - is also strong.

Part of building strong partnerships is participation in larger efforts to improve SCA response and treatment.

Both Fischers recently attended the national conference of the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association (SCAA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping prevent sudden cardiac arrest through awareness, education and access to defibrillation.

The conference this year was held in Minneapolis, which Josh said is fitting because "we've got a lot of individuals and organizations and companies that do a lot of work here in Minnesota with the end goal being to save lives of victims of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA)."

Stevens County EMS will soon be working with the Minnesota Resuscitation Consortium, one of five group that received a grant from the Medtronic Foundation's Heart Rescue Project to improve SCA survival rates - 50 percent over the next five years.

Right now there is little useful data for SCA survival rates or AED locations in Stevens County, in part because the sample is so small and in part because there hasn't been a concerted effort to do so.

Part of the data collection process locally is registering all AEDs available in the community, which Stevens County EMS is working to get all local AEDs into an online AED registry. Larger communities with similar AED and community education programs similar to what Stevens County EMS is implementing have seen survival rates of up to 30 or 40 percent.

"If we've got a way to improve survival of the leading cause of death by 50 percent, that would be amazing," said Randy.