In the hunt to stop America’s most deadly killer, a formidable citizen squad is gaining more recruits and more ground than ever.
Their efforts have propelled the survival rate for people who suffer a cardiac event in The Villages to a stunning 40% — more than six times better than the national average of 6%, the Daily Sun found during a yearlong investigation of cities with populations of 100,000.
It’s a remarkable statistic for Sumter County, which has the nation’s highest median age of 67. More than 2,200 Americans with a median age of 64 will die from a cardiac event today, or nearly 800,000 this year (one in every three deaths), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since the Daily Sun published its initial findings six months ago, residents here have come forward in droves to install even more automatic external defibrillators (AEDs), an innovation that often makes the life-or-death difference.
Every second counts, since a patient will typically lose brain function within four minutes of a cardiac arrest. For every one-minute delay in starting CPR and using an AED, the chance of survival decreases by 10%.
CPR buys time, but an AED buys life.
That’s because when sudden cardiac arrest occurs, the heart either starts to flutter — but not enough to pump blood — or races at a dangerous pace. CPR makes the heart pump and keeps oxygen flowing to the body, but will it not “start” the heart.
AEDs, priced at about $1,500, can detect whether an electrical shock is needed to reset an abnormal heart rhythm, and then deliver it.
On a per-capita basis, The Villages has more of the portable, computerized devices, and more citizens trained in their use, than any other U.S. community for which data is available, the Daily Sun analysis found.
At least two lives have been saved this year in The Villages after cardiac events in which bystanders deployed an AED.
Since the Daily Sun published its report on Feb. 10:
— Within two days, a surge in demand filled all CPR/AED classes offered by the Villages Public Safety Department for the upcoming 10 months, prompting the agency to double the number of classes offered this year.
— Within two weeks, Villages Public Safety received 248 requests for information on neighborhood AED programs.
— Within five months, at least 42 more AEDs had been installed in 16 neighborhoods, an 8% increase from 2018.
— Community Watch, which had 20 vehicles equipped with AEDs, added one more. It also began arming its foot patrols with AEDs nightly from 5 to 9 p.m. on the three town squares full of thousands of retirees.
— So far this year, more than 1,000 local citizens have been trained in AED use, a 22% increase in the total number of people who have been trained by Villages Public Safety.
— Nationally, citizen AED use remains dismal. Only 39% of non-hospital cardiac arrest patients received CPR from a bystander, and an AED was used less than 12% of the time, according to Cardiac Arrest Registry to Enhance Survival (CARES), a CDC-Emory University project that tracks such data.
— There remains no nationwide standard for reporting data that would reveal outcomes or best practices. CARES is based solely on voluntary reporting and keeps much of its data confidential.
— Only a few other pockets of the country like The Villages boast cardiac save rates above 6 percent, but there continues to be no national mechanism for them to share their innovative approaches with others.
A Community Draped in Life-Saving Devices
An exhaustive canvassing of The Villages 86-square-mile community by the Daily Sun located at least 192 AEDs in recreation centers, government buildings, public safety vehicles, healthcare facilities and other businesses.
Homes here are also master-planned with a proximity to fire stations that allow for an average response time of 4 minutes, 15 seconds — much faster than the industry standard of 6 to 8 minutes.
But it’s the nearly 500 AEDs installed at private homes through The Villages Public Safety’s Neighbors Saving Neighbors Program that sets the community apart.
“It’s all about the ‘what if,’” said Lonnie Levy, of the Village of Bonnybrook, who coordinated the Castleberry Circle group’s drive to bring two AEDs to its neighborhood of 99 homes this year. “It’s like life insurance — you pay for it all your life while also hoping you won’t need it.”
Jeff Coffman, of the Village of Osceola Hills at Soaring Eagle, knows first-hand about that need.
The retired deputy fire chief from the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department in Fairfax County, Virginia, started a neighborhood AED team here this year after spearheading a similar effort there.
Four years ago Coffman and another golfer were on the tee box of a hole at the Evergreen Country Club in Haymarket, Virginia, when they heard someone call out and found another golfer down on the ground.
Coffman and his partner responded, finding no pulse or breathing.
“He wasn’t even down 30 seconds and I was on him performing CPR,” Coffman said. He instructed one man to call 911 and the other to obtain the AED from the clubhouse.
For 12 minutes, Coffman performed CPR and administered two shocks from the AED as it instructed, declining offers from other people to relieve him.
“This is my patient, I’m not giving him up,” he recalled. “By the time we got him loaded up into the ambulance, he was talking to us,” Coffman said.
He said the man he helped save is still alive today.
“That’s why the neighborhood AED program is so critical,” he said. “Every second counts, and we’re often able to get to people quickly, even before the fire department can.”
Penny Myers, of the Village Rio Grande, helped her neighborhood raise $11,000 to buy four AEDs after reading the Daily Sun report. The area is large enough to need four more, and she plans to keep fundraising, especially in memory of an across-the-street neighbor who died last last week.
“It’s too bad we didn’t have something that could have helped him,” she said. “I’m in a rush to get these in. We need to do this. I’d stand on my head in the middle of the street to get people to help.”
Alycyn Culbertson feels the same way after a man died last year in front of her house in the Village of Osceola Hills.
“There might have been something we could have done,” said Culbertson, a retired law enforcement officer. “So now we’re doing everything to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The neighborhood already has seven AEDs, but enough money has been raised for another five to go live in the near future.
“It’s not just for us; it’s for parents, children and grandchildren that visit us,” Culbertson said. “It’s for anybody who happens to be in the neighborhood. We’d like to prevent a tragedy if we can.”
Gary Gross, of the Village of Dunedin, doesn’t personally know anyone who’s suffered a heart attack — he simply wanted to help others when he volunteered in to help with the 38 AEDs in his neighborhood.
He recalled how Lt. John Longacre, emergency resource specialist at The Villages Public Safety Department, said that investing in an AED is less expensive than arranging a funeral.
“I love my neighbors,” Gross said. “We’re concerned and want to be helpful.”
Residents in the Village of Lake Deaton had their CPR and AED training in May as their neighborhood’s first AEDs arrived. Kathi Savage, who led the efforts, said many of her neighbors have been impacted by heart disease, including her husband who underwent bypass surgery.
“We all know of people who have heart problems now,” she said. “It could be someone we know and love, or one of our neighbors. We want to prevent a loss.”
She felt a sense of urgency after learning one neighbor went through cardiac failure this summer in New York and was revived four times.
“He will testify that if he was not at the hospital when his heart stopped, he would not be alive,” Savage said. “The immediate response is what saves someone’s life. We know that someone needs a quick response with an AED; we can be there, we can help, we can do something that can prevent a death. And that’s pretty powerful and very comforting.”
A Way For Neighbors to Save Neighbors
Creating a Neighbors Saving Neighbors program in a neighborhood starts by contacting Longacre at 352-205-8280 or Lt.John.Longacre@districtgov.org.
He determines the number of AEDs and volunteer responders needed for the neighborhood’s size, as well as the cost for maintaining the device. He then delivers a presentation about how the ReadyAlert system makes volunteers aware of nearby cardiac events while emergency responders are on the way.
Sharon Wackley, of the Village of Fernandina, heads up her neighborhood AED group. In the six years since it formed, they haven’t had to use the AED yet. But it gives her peace of mind.
“A lot of my neighbors are getting older, so it could happen any time,” she said. “It’s nice knowing we can help out if something does happen.”
Training thousands of Good Samaritans leads to real-world results, officials say.
It was a bystander who made the difference in the most recent cardiac save two weeks ago, said Villages Public Safety’s Lt. Noah Hartman.
When Villages Public Safety Engine 40 and Rescue 40 arrived just before 9 a.m. at Saddlebrook Softball Complex, a man was already performing CPR on the patient lying on the sidewalk between two dugouts. He’d also connected the AED that was installed at the complex, and it already had administered one shock.
The patient had a pulse but went into full cardiac arrest just after Hartman arrived. First responders continued CPR, administered medicine and delivered another shock with the AED machine. By the time the patient was moved into an ambulance, he was conscious and talking.
“The gentleman who was doing CPR seemed to be doing very good compressions,” Hartman said. “They had the AED out there. They were doing their counts like they were trained to do. Every second counts. If they weren’t there, doing what they had learned to do, this outcome could have been completely different.”
Kara Watts, Villages Public Safety Division Chief of EMS Training, said the patient is recovering, in large part due to the bystander’s actions.
“It doesn’t always happen that way, but any time we can get a save out of a situation like that, it gives us a sense of accomplishment,” Hartman said. “When we come in there and do what we’re trained to do and it works, it’s a great feeling.”
Watts added that such a case “just opens people to a realization that they weren’t aware of. A lot of people are in the dark about cardiac arrest. Many of them think it can’t happen to them.”
But in The Villages, more than anywhere else in America, people are seeing the light and enlisting in the fight against this killer.
After watching their teammate nearly die of cardiac arrest, only to be saved by a bystander armed with an AED, that softball player’s team reached out to Watts with a request:
They want to be one of the next groups to receive AED training.
Curt Hills can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5287 or Curt.firstname.lastname@example.org; Mackenzie Raetz can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5354, or email@example.com; Phillip Stuart can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5332 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or email@example.com.