The father of a suburban Detroit teen who died of cardiac arrest during a water polo match has begun a mission to donate a portable defibrillator to every public school in Michigan.

Kimberly Gillary, 15, died during a water polo match at Groves High School in Beverly Hills in April.

“Kimberly’s death happened to our family for a reason,” said Randy Gillary, a Troy attorney. “We want to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else’s family if we can.”

Defibrillation once was viewed as a sophisticated emergency room procedure used to shock stopped hearts back into their normal rhythms. Now, it increasingly is seen as a front-line defense outside the hospital against sudden heart stoppages.

The American Heart Association reports that survival rates increased from 9 percent to 30 percent in cities when the portable shock units were available, the Detroit News said May 2.

Gillary and other supporters of defibrillators want to make them as familiar to the public as fire extinguishers, seat belts, and other lifesaving devices.

Beginning this fall, the National Institutes of Health will spend $8 million on a 15-month national experiment in Detroit and 24 other cities in an effort to conclusively prove the case for portable defibrillators, called Automated External Defibrillators.

“We’re hoping to show that by putting AEDs in malls and stores and high-rise residences, we will save more lives than if they were absent,” said Dr. Robert Zalenski, the Detroit coordinator for the study.

About 100 defibrillators will be used at 40 sites in Detroit, said Marcel Salive of the health institute. “The defibrillator device is FDA-approved and good when used by doctors and paramedics,” Salive said. “But can it be put out by a lay person and used as a strategy to save lives? That hasn’t really been tested up until this study.”

More than 250,000 people die each year of sudden cardiac arrest, which is usually caused by a quivering, chaotic disturbance in the heart called ventricular fibrillation. Defibrillation is the best known treatment for this condition.

The portable defibrillator recognizes an abnormal heart rhythm and delivers an electric current to a patient’s chest wall that passes through the heart. Before improved technology, the user had to have enough medical background to be able to interpret whether a person needed a shock to the heart.

Now AEDs have an internal computer chip that will not allow the device to shock unless it detects an abnormal heart rhythm requiring defibrillation. An AED costs an average of $3,000 and weighs just 10 pounds.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are moving to increase public access to AEDs.

Michigan and 45 other states have expanded Good Samaritan laws to allow the use of defibrillators by the public, freeing most users, physicians prescribing AEDs, and manufacturers from liability.

But there is some concern. The notion of sending a jolt of energy to a person’s heart may still frighten people. A physician’s authorization is required to purchase a defibrillator.

And even the most sophisticated AEDs are not without hazards. The victim must be away from water and any kind of metal—including grates and metal jewelry—or the rescuer risks getting shocked.

Links:

American Heart Association, National Center, 7272 Greenville Avenue, Dallas, TX 75231; phone (800) 242-8721, web http://www.americanheart.org

National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892; phone (301) 496-4000, web http://www.nih.gov