Monday Medical: The heart’s chain of survival |

Monday Medical: The heart’s chain of survival

Riley Polumbus

While standing at the back of a long customs line at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, Steamboat Springs resident Jim Johnsen contemplated whether he and his wife, Janeen, would make their connecting flight.

Then they heard a call for help. A man in his 80s had collapsed from a cardiac emergency.

Immediately switching from vacation mode to emergency mode, Jim, an emergency medical technician, responded with Janeen, who is certified in CPR. Knowing that airports have portable automated external defibrillators, or AEDs, Jim instructed Janeen to find one.

Meanwhile, Jim and four other good Samaritans initiated CPR. When the AED arrived, Jim turned on the device and prepared the patient as chest compressions continued.

Everyone then stepped aside, and the AED shocked the elderly man. He awoke alert and oriented, a survivor who owes his life to an early response and easy access to a life-saving tool.

This scenario could happen anywhere at anytime. The key to saving someone’s life is time. It’s what medical experts refer to as the “chain of survival.”

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There are four links in the chain of survival:

– Early EMS (Emergency Medical System), call 911 for assistance

– Early CPR, deliver oxygen to the body’s vital organs

– Early defibrillation, using an AED

– Early advanced cardiac life support from medical professionals

What is an AED, and how does it save a life?

An AED is an easy-to-use portable device that analyzes a heart rhythm during a cardiac emergency. In many cases, it can shock a heart back to its normal rhythm.

Except on TV or in the movies, it’s very rare that CPR alone will save a life.

“CPR buys time, an AED can save a life. It’s the most critical step in the chain of survival,” said Johnsen, community CPR coordinator/instructor at Yampa Valley Medical Center. “We’ve seen results with AEDs that we’ve never seen with standalone CPR.”

A crowded airport where AEDs are readily available is a fortunate place to have a heart attack, but what about in this community?

In February 2002, a 59-year-old man had a cardiac emergency while climbing the stairs in the Thunderhead building at the Steamboat Ski Area. Upon reaching the top, he lost consciousness. A ski instructor called ski patrol, a patroller ran upstairs with an AED and a single shock revived the skier.

Today, the Steamboat Ski Area has 12 AEDs. Ski Patrol has several, and the others are located in all three on-mountain restaurants and at the base. Patrollers always are ready to respond. However, anyone certified in CPR also is trained to use an AED.

Because the Steamboat Ski Area is visited by thousands daily, it makes perfect sense to have so many AEDs available.

Where else should they be?

“Any large public building, or places where numerous people come and go should have one on the premises,” said Johnsen. “Even large businesses may consider having one.”

Johnsen said there are four local churches with AEDs. Both the Howelsen Hill Ski Area and Old Town Hot Springs have AEDs, as does each school in the Steamboat Springs School District. Yampa Valley Medical Center has several on its campus. Yampa Valley Regional Airport has two in the terminal and one more with its emergency response team.

Even with convenient access to an AED, activation of the chain of survival is not a guarantee for saving a life; however, it offers the best chance.

Compared to many locations, healthy and active communities such as Steamboat Springs are more prepared to deal with cardiac emergencies.

Johnsen said only 6 to 7 percent of the national population is CPR-trained, while in Steamboat it’s closer to 32 percent. There are many local residents ready to initiate the chain of survival if needed.

Riley Polumbus is communications specialist at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

Are you trained?

Yampa Valley Medical Center will offer a free introductory class on how to use an AED from 6 to 7 p.m. Thursday. YVMC offers five levels of CPR certification classes each month. Within a few hours – the length of a good hike or a half-day on the slopes – you can be ready to respond. Visit and check the event calendar for a class convenient for you.