As the technology in portable defibrillators has improved, school districts in many states are using the devices to treat sudden cardiac arrest on their campuses.

Pennsylvania is the first state in the country to provide each of its school districts with portable defibrillators, according to the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit National Center for Early Defibrillation.

Nearly 400 Pennsylvania school districts have applied for the free devices under a one-time, $2.5 million program approved by the state legislature in May, according to the state education department. Districts also can purchase additional defibrillators at a discounted price of $1,445-they typically cost between $2,500 and $3,500-under a bulk contract secured by the state.

Similar legislation is being considered in Illinois and New Jersey. New York state lawmakers last month sent Gov. George Pataki a bill that would require schools with 1,000 or more students to have defibrillators available, but that measure does not provide any funding.

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.

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.

About the size of a laptop computer, 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, defibrillators have an internal computer chip that will not allow the devices to shock unless they detect an abnormal heart rhythm requiring defibrillation. This means people other than doctors or paramedics can use the devices.

Mary Franco, head nurse for the Carlisle Area School District in central Pennsylvania, considers it lucky that no one has suffered fatal heart trouble either in the classroom or on the playing field during her 13 years with the district.

With the recent acquisition of two free heart-starting defibrillators from the state education department, she feels better knowing the district will be prepared if there is an emergency. Many in the community remember the death of high school basketball player Jay Hodge, who collapsed during a game in 1980, she said.

“I’m very happy to have a device that can obviously save lives,” said Franco. “I think almost every school district in this region has had a sudden death happen. With a defibrillator, you save critical minutes.”

Rep. Kelly Lewis, R-Monroe, pushed for Pennsylvania’s program after 15-year-old Gregory Moyer, a Notre Dame of East Stroudsburg sophomore, collapsed and died during halftime in a basketball game in December 2000. He would like the legislature to find money this year for a similar program that would provide defibrillators to “first responder” units of police and fire departments.

“This may be a way to enhance public safety across the state,” Lewis said.

While school officials say they appreciate any assistance from the state to defray the cost, they are unsure how many additional machines they can afford to ensure they have an adequate supply.

Pittsburgh’s school board later this month will consider applying to the state for the free defibrillators. Officials have not yet determined how many other machines are needed, or how the district could pay for them, health services coordinator Jeannine French said.

“It would be wonderful if we could have more. We have about 90 schools, and we can’t put defibrillators in some schools and not in others,” she said.

Dr. Vince N. Mosesso Jr., medical director of the National Center for Early Defibrillation, said he has fielded numerous calls from districts seeking advice on deploying the devices.

“There’s a lot of worry that if something happens in a building that doesn’t have one, could they be liable? If you have two, you should make them available at major events, like sporting events, where you would get the most bang for the buck,” Mosesso said.

In the meantime, Gregory Moyer’s parents are continuing their own efforts to encourage the wider use of defibrillators in schools and other public places. A defibrillator fund they established in his memory has raised $150,000.

“I think there’s no question that it has helped,” said his father, John Moyer. “This has given us a cause and helped us cope with how are we going to make it through the next day, or the next week, or the next month.”

At least 46 states have expanded Good Samaritan laws to allow the use of defibrillators by the public, freeing most users and manufacturers from liability, according to an Associated Press report.

But there is some concern. The notion of sending a jolt of energy to a person’s heart may still frighten people. And even the most sophisticated defilbrillators 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:

National Center for Early Defibrillation
http://www.early-defib.org

Pennsylvania Department of Education
http://www.pde.state.pa.us

American Heart Association
http://www.americanheart.org