Postal colleagues irked by slow response to defibrillator request

  • Article by: JAMES ELI SHIFFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 6, 2010 - 8:44 AM

Art Tilson had a fatal heart attack at work. His co-workers want to honor him by donating the life-saving device to their workplace, but there's a lot of red tape to get through.

Seven months ago, Art Tilson suffered a fatal heart attack and collapsed on the floor of his workplace, the immense mail processing center by the river in downtown Minneapolis.

Since then, Tilson's co-workers have urged the post office to install an automated external defibrillator (AED), an increasingly popular device that jump-starts the heart. They even found a group willing to donate the $2,000 device. They don't know whether it would have saved Tilson's life, but they think it would help protect a workforce filled with heart-attack candidates.

"All I'd like to see is that when the next guy goes down, there's a defibrillator there," said postal worker Bruce Johnson.

So far, however, the workers have failed to jolt the U.S. Postal Service into action. While a supervisor announced that a request for the defibrillators was submitted at least four months ago to the regional headquarters in Denver, Postal Service spokesman Pete Nowacki acknowledged this week that a formal request remained on hold while local officials completed a training requirement.

Protocol to follow

"We can't just make a local decision," Nowacki said. "There are processes and things like that within the Postal Service."

Nowacki doesn't see the same urgency as Tilson's co-workers. In Tilson's case, he noted, an ambulance from Hennepin County Medical Center arrived at the facility in only four minutes.

But front-line workers say the vastness of the mail processing center, which sprawls over three city blocks and employs 1,800 people, delayed the arrival of help. Mark Jacobs, a mechanic who performed CPR on Tilson, said it actually took about 13 minutes for the paramedics to find their way to the dying janitor.

He had been feeling great

Tilson, who lived in Eagan, liked to say that he cheated death twice, said his daughter, Liese Tilson, of St. Paul. The first time, she said, Tilson was a paratrooper in Vietnam who lost an eye to shrapnel and gained a Purple Heart. Then he survived heart surgery three years ago.

Tilson's professional life was less dramatic. He worked as a forklift operator for 30 years and retired, but golf and fishing weren't enough for him, so he took a job as a custodian with the post office. This spring, at the age of 63, Tilson told his daughter that he felt better than he had in years.

But on Tilson's final day in June, fellow custodian Greg Danner noticed that his friend didn't look well. Five minutes later, Tilson collapsed. Jacobs and others performed CPR and restored Tilson's heartbeat, only to lose it again before the paramedics took over.

Tilson's death was a blow to his co-workers. Danner decided the best way to honor his friend was to prevent such deaths in the future, perhaps by getting a defibrillator for the processing center. Over the past decade, the easy-to-use devices, which provide an electric shock to restart a heart, have become commonplace in airports, shopping malls and many workplaces.

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community has given away more than 600 of the units to government agencies such as the State Patrol. A postal processing center is a good fit for the charitable program, which provides both AEDs and the training to use them, said Jim Muelkin, the tribe's director of emergency services.

"This is the perfect season to just go do this," Muelkin said. "I'd like to expedite it if possible."

Nowacki said the Postal Service couldn't move forward, however, until the facility first updated its CPR certification. That process was completed Dec. 1, so a formal request will go to regional headquarters in the next few days, he said.

Nowacki estimated the facility would need 15 defibrillators, and that any decision to employ them must fit in with the "overall safety program" for 14,000 local postal employees.

"I understand how they're going to feel, that there isn't any sense of urgency because of the time frame," Nowacki said. "We are going forward with it. Keep in mind, too, we do feel that we have an excellent system in place right now."

Tilson's daughter doesn't see any reason for delay. "If it could save someone's life, it's worth it," she said. "If someone's willing to donate this to the post office, for heaven's sakes ..."

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