When Coon Rapids police officer Bryan Platz arrived on the scene, bystanders had circled the man who lay dying on the ground. He had collapsed on his way into a retail store, suffering sudden cardiac arrest.
No one helped. No one knew how.
“There were no less than 10 people who were standing around this man doing nothing. Half of those people were in the store’s uniform,” Platz said. “It haunts you. You say, ‘what if?’ ”
The advent of the AED, or automated external defibrillator, and hands-only CPR makes it easier for bystanders to render aid and save lives. Yet many opportunities are lost because of lack of action and training.
Platz is trying to change that. He has launched a grass-roots-style campaign to make Coon Rapids a Heart Safe community, a designation awarded by the Minnesota Department of Health and nonprofit partners including Allina Heath. About 20 communities in the state have it.
Being Heart Safe means teaching hands-only CPR and making sure businesses have AEDs — with batteries charged — and that their employees know where they are and how to use them.
In the United States, only 8 percent of the 383,000 people who suffer out-of-hospital sudden cardiac arrest each year survive, according to the American Heart Association. In Minnesota, it’s about 14 percent. Effective bystander CPR can double or triple the chance of survival, but bystanders intervene only about one-third of the time.
In Minnesota bystanders intervene even less often — about 23 percent the time, said Katie Tewalt, Heart Safe Community Supervisor at Allina Health.
Fear of doing harm
The biggest hurdle is helping people overcome the fear that they’ll do more harm than good.
“People are so afraid to help,” Platz said. “But there is nothing you can do to this person. They’re already dead. … When you do CPR, you are going to break ribs. It’s gross. You will hear it. You have to push through that.”
Seems like a jarring course of action, but it could save a life, said Barbara Ducharme, senior director of community health with the American Heart Association.
“If someone has a sudden cardiac arrest, they are already technically dead. It’s always better to do something than nothing,” she said.
Sudden cardiac arrest is caused by an electrical malfunction of the heart called ventricular fibrillation, which causes a quivering of the heart muscle that makes it unable to pump blood through the body, according to the American Heart Association. It is not a heart attack, which occurs when plaque or clots block blood flow to the heart.
“We are having a lot of saves in Minnesota and across the country with people who have had sudden cardiac arrest,” Ducharme said.
If someone collapses unconscious, bystanders should check for signs of life, call 911, have another bystander seek out an AED and then start hands-only CPR. Push hard and fast in the center of the chest at a rate of 100 beats a minute — to the beat of the classic disco song “Stayin’ Alive,” according to the American Heart Association.
Most 911 dispatchers will even walk bystanders through hands-only CPR on the phone in an emergency. A Ham Lake dad saved his 11-year-old son’s life by following a dispatcher’s instructions over the phone, Tewalt said.
Platz said people also fear liability and believe they need extensive medical training to intervene. But bystanders are protected by the state’s good Samaritan law and you don’t need to be a doctor to save a life, Platz said.
“Anyone can render aid as long as it’s in good faith. We want to break that stigma,” Platz said.
More machines and training
The goal in Coon Rapids is to get 300 AEDs distributed around the city and to train 30,000 people, or about half the population, in hands-only CPR.
There are now about 50 AEDs at local businesses and in city buildings.
Last winter, Coon Rapids police put AEDs in all of their squad cars because officers often arrived first on the scene.
“[Platz] has this big vision,” said Police Chief Brad Wise. “He knows sometimes people have a reluctance to get involved because they don’t feel like they know what to do. In reality, knowing what to do is really simple.”
Wise has allowed Platz to do some of his Heart Safe work on the clock but said the officer is using his free time to promote the grass-roots campaign.
“His energy and his drive is inspiring,” Wise said.
Platz has raised about $2,000 and used that money to buy CPR dummies and other training equipment. He has already trained hundreds of people at schools, businesses, nonprofits, even Little League diamonds across the city. He is also persuading businesses to invest in AEDs, which can cost $2,000. Assurance Manufacturing, the American Legion, a Boy Scout troop and the Bunker Hills Golf Course have bought discounted AEDs as part of the Heart Safe campaign.
Minutes, seconds count
It takes under 5 minutes to train someone in hands-only CPR and AED use, Platz said. An AED looks for an irregular rhythm called ventricular fibrillation. If detected, a shock is administered to restart the heart. AEDs are designed for layperson use. You don’t need special medical training to use one, Platz said.
Still, why not just play it safe and wait for police and medics to arrive?
“In this game, every second counts,” Platz explains.
There’s a critical two-minute window after someone suffers sudden cardiac arrest. Despite officers’ best efforts, traffic and other obstacles mean help can’t always arrive that swiftly.
Michael Hess is a big supporter of Platz’s efforts. Hess, an avid runner and triathlon competitor, was at Life Time Fitness stretching after a run when he collapsed this March. Platz responded to the call.
Emergency responders used their AED to shock Hess’s heart seven times, bringing him back to life. He’s now fully recovering and training for another triathlon.
“I think it’s awesome. It’s a great effort,” said Hess, 52, of Andover. “If I had passed out an hour earlier I would have been out on the road and I would not be talking to you now.”
Learning these skills isn’t just about saving a stranger. Nearly 90 percent of cardiac arrests occur at home, according to the American Heart Association. Learning hands-on CPR gives a person the chance to save their spouse, their parent, their child.