Measure Of Success: 70 Lives

March 27, 2007
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There aren’t many companies that can produce references such as Lori Jordan, business manager for the Riverview Athletic Club in Plainfield Township, or Gary Gust, the man whose life she saved in January.

“I wasn’t even supposed to be there at the time,” Jordan said of the Saturday afternoon she zapped the 62-year-old Cedar Springs resident back to life with a Philips HeartStart OnSite Defibrillator. “I was touring someone because the sales guy didn’t come in on time, and then I saw Gary lying on the ground …”

It was the second time in two months Jordan was in the right place at the right time. She also wasn’t scheduled to work at the athletic club when she saved another member last November. The club had installed the defibrillator only six months earlier.

Health clubs became the state’s fastest growing market for automated external defibrillators — the portable workplace models — with the passage of a new state law last year requiring “obvious and ready accessibility” of the devices in health clubs.

John Endres, founder and director of sales for NorthStar Medical Equipment in Ada, is skeptical of mandating companies to invest in the equipment, but he is nonetheless hopeful the increased accessibility will help save lives.

“You have to be doing this for the right reasons,” said Endres, who counts Riverview Athletic among his clients. “Whether it’s because you love the people that work for you or you just don’t want to lose a member, you’re doing this to save lives.”

A decade ago, Endres was a frustrated seller of diabetes products, depressed by the futility of treating that terrible disease. After learning of a pilot program to introduce defibrillators to the workplace and public places, he signed on as one of Philips’ first regional distributors. It took him six months to make his first sale — a large deployment at furniture maker Steelcase in Grand Rapids.

“It was a tough sale,” he recalled. “There was no Good Samaritan law. It was $5,000. No one even wanted to talk to me.”

In 1999, the state expanded the CPR-protection of the Good Samaritan law to include defibrillators, and prices later dropped to more affordable levels. NorthStar Medical is today Philips’ largest distributor of HeartStart OnSite Defibrillators, selling 4,500 units last year in 20 states. Two years ago, the company was a finalist for the local Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award.

Endres prefers a different measure of success: the 70 local lives his company’s products have saved in the past six years, which doesn’t include those saved by the many first responders that use his product.

“There is a certain karma to it: You keep a breadwinner at home, a brother still has his brother, children still have a father,” he said. “Maybe you save somebody that goes on to develop a cure for cancer.”

According to the American Heart Association, more than 250,000 Americans die each year from sudden cardiac arrest. It is the leading cause of death in the workplace, accounting for 13 percent of on-the-job fatalities. SCA is typically caused by ventricular fibrillation, an arrhythmia in the heart that causes it to quiver unproductively, unable to pump blood. While CPR can prolong some degree of circulation, the only known treatment is defibrillation.

For the average human being, the likelihood of successful resuscitation decreases by about 10 percent every minute after arrest. At five minutes — a respectable paramedic response time — the likelihood of survival is less than 50 percent. At 10 minutes, it is zero.

“What people do initially determines what I can do as a firefighter or an EMT,” said Tim O’Connor, a Kentwood firefighter and principal of Heartbeat LLC, a workplace emergency training service with 285 corporate accounts in three states. His company works with NorthStar Medical to launch defibrillator programs at companies in conjunction with CPR and basic first aid training.

Even without training, the 3.3-pound devices are simple to use. The pads are labeled with pictures identifying placement, with an electronic voice that walks the user through the process and corrects any missteps. It also guides the user through CPR.

Among only four of his local health club deployments, Endres counts a dozen saves. Of the nine uses his defibrillators saw in area gyms the past 18 months, seven lives were saved. The national SCA survival rate is less than 5 percent.

The AHA believes that widespread access to defibrillators could save as many as 50,000 lives each year. The Kalamazoo County municipal system, a NorthStar client, boasts a documented survival rate of 25 percent. With an 85 percent survival rate, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, where HeartStarts have been used more than any other location, has become the safest non-medical environment in the world to have a heart attack, bested only by an undocumented 100 percent survival rate at a casino in Ohio.

Of the units currently in the field, 34 percent have been used at least once.

Of his initial difficulty in selling the units, Endres said, “I used to hear the strangest excuses from people. Things like, ‘We only have temporary workers here,’ or ‘We’ve never had a heart attack before.’ They think they can just rely on the paramedics, and then something happens.”

It’s been a rough road for what Endres calls the “cheapest life insurance policy in the corporate world.” Philips is the only manufacturer to never issue an FDA-required recall or record a product failure. The decade-old industry has been plagued by failures. Not long ago, statistics showed that one of every five units made had been recalled. The industry’s largest manufacturer, Medtronic, voluntarily ceased production under FDA pressure. Several other companies have ceased operations entirely.

“For a long time, if you had a heart attack, you were supposed to die. There was no liability for product failure,” Endres said. “That’s not true anymore.”

As many lives as have been saved by the portable defibrillators, there remains a human element that must be taken into consideration. Endres pointed out that in some places defibrillators are placed on the wall unassembled or with no batteries. He has complained to the bank where his wife works that the wall-mounted defibrillator there has the battery warning light on. Other companies purchase untested models that fail or are recalled.

“These are incredibly easy to maintain, but you still need to set up a program or they’re useless,” Endres said. “You can’t just go through the motions. That’s what worries me about mandating (defibrillator deployment).”

Endres has hopes to expand NorthStar Medical to Spain, his wife’s native country, in the coming years. He is also working with a maker of emergency call boxes to install defibrillators at emergency stations on college campuses. HQX

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