Doctors say sudden cardiac arrest is responsible for more deaths than breast cancer, lung cancer and HIV combined.
Yet, unlike those diseases, they say we already have the technology to save many of those lives -- so why aren’t we using it?
Some members of Congress are trying to change that, but their success may depend on a group of sixth graders.
Lawrence, Sara, Olivia, Lee and Brighton are five talkative, totally typical sixth graders who had no idea what was waiting for them behind the door of Studio D at NBC Washington.
But before we tell you what they found, we first have to take you on a trip to Houston, Texas, to meet Scott Corron.
“I was essentially dead”
Corron pointed to a spot on one of Houston's popular biking trails.
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“I biked up through here and made it to about right here,” he said. "I fell off my bike with cardiac arrest. I had no pulse, no breathing and was essentially dead."
He was just 44 years old and told us an automated external defibrillator -- or AED -- brought him back to life.
Corron now wants to make it as easy as possible for businesses to install these life-saving devices in their buildings. "Only five percent of hotels and restaurants have AEDs,” he said.
“Many facilities don't actually have them because they're threatened by the laws and believe if they have one they're going to be held to a standard of care of a medical facility and therefore will be at risk," he added.
Corron went to his Congressman, Pete Olson (TX-R), who sat down with us in his Capitol Hill office.
Rep. Olson said too many nationwide chains told him they're afraid to install the devices in their stores.
"They're worried about liability. They worry about if they have it in their store somewhere and they try to employ it, they'll be sued," he said.
Trying to Fix Complicated Liability Laws
Olson pointed to the AED in the hall near his office, which is posted with a warning saying it can only be used "by trained persons" because, Olson said, D.C. has a complicated liability law.
But just across the border in Virginia, an AED can be put up with no restrictions, Olson said.
Olson told us the rules vary so much from state to state, he introduced House Resolution 4152, dubbed The Cardiac Arrest Survival Act, to protect any business that installs an AED -- and anyone who uses it -- from being sued.
“These devices are designed to be used by folks who are not trained medical personnel,” said Dr. Jonathan Reiner at George Washington University Hospital.
Dr. Reiner is a nationally renowned cardiologist and contacted us after seeing our recent investigation, which found one out of five AEDs in our area was locked up in offices or hidden away behind security desks.
"They should be out in the open rather than locked in an office," Reiner said.
He said he thinks too many local businesses lock AEDs away because complicated D.C. law makes them think defibrillators can only be used by trained personnel. But, he said, there's a huge amount of scientific research showing the devices are so easy to use, you don't need any training to help bring someone back to life.
"My favorite study,” Reiner said, “is the study that compared sixth-graders to paramedics."
The “6th Grader” Study
And that is why our sixth graders found themselves sitting on chairs in a hallway, wondering what they were going to find behind the door of Studio D.
To demonstrate what that study on AEDs and sixth-graders by the University of Washington found, we brought each child, one by one, into the studio. They were greeted by Capt. Lee Silverman, who held a gray and yellow box.
Silverman trains the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Department’s EMTs and gave each of the sixth graders directions similar to those used in the scientific study.
"We're going to pretend this mannequin is on the floor,” he told each child. “His heart has stopped and his breathing has stopped. What we need you to do is use this automated external defibrillator. We can't help you, and I can't give you any directions, but everything you need is in this box. I want to see how fast you can do it."
And with that, each child went to work as we timed them. With our cameras rolling, we watched how each child first had to figure out how to open the AED, turn it on, find the pads and figure out how to stick those pads onto the mannequin -- something that tripped them all up for a bit.
Some of the kids tried to zap the mannequin too quickly -- but the machine wouldn't let them do it until it was safe.
After each child successfully shocked the mannequin, Silverman checked the placement of the pads. While some of the kids put them closer together than the diagram indicated, the fire department captain said they all would have worked in a real emergency.
“The pads are in the right place,” he told one child. “So, you did a good job!”
We found that with no training, each of the children figured out how to use an AED within, on average, about 2 minutes 1 second.
That’s plenty of time to save a life and similar to what the scientific study found. The study showed it took the average sixth-grader just seconds longer to deploy the device when compared to trained paramedics.
You Can’t Kill Someone Who Is Already Dead
"Every kid could do it,” Reiner, the cardiologist, said about the University of Washington study, one of his favorites.
“Every kid did it correctly the first time and there was no practical difference in the time it took them to do it versus the trained professionals," he said.
Everyone should take a few minutes and get AED training so they’re comfortable using the devices, Reiner said.
It takes less than five minutes to watch this educational video made by the News4 I-Team and the Montgomery County fire department.
Even if you’ve never had training, don't be afraid to use an AED in a real emergency, Reiner said.
As several experts told us, you can't kill someone who is already dead. And as the sixth-graders learned, an AED will only shock someone if they have no heartbeat.
"I think a grown-up can handle it," one of the children, Olivia, said.
Sara agreed. “It only took us a couple of minutes!”
“They can do this,” Brighton, another of the children, said. “And they should know how to do it so they can save someone's life."
Because, as Lawrence and our brave little group of sixth graders will now tell you, "If we can do it, they can do it too."