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AEDs are a crucial life-saving tool. Why doesn't every US school have one?

An Automated External Defibrillator, or AED, sits just steps from the gymnasium at Susquehannock High School in Pennsylvania (Photo: Joce Sterman)
An Automated External Defibrillator, or AED, sits just steps from the gymnasium at Susquehannock High School in Pennsylvania (Photo: Joce Sterman)
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WASHINGTON (TND) — A simple device that could save lives is missing from many of the places that need it the most: schools. When a sudden cardiac arrest happens, automatic external defibrillators, or AEDs, can prevent tragedy, especially at schools, where young athletes are at risk. But a Spotlight on America investigation revealed a patchwork of laws across the nation that show AEDs aren't universally required, creating gaps in safety.

Among the photographs New Jersey mother JoAnne Babbitt treasures is a framed picture of her son, John. It's an ordinary photo, showing a typical teenage boy passing time, looking at his phone. But it means the world to Babbitt because it's the last photo she has of her boy whose life was cut short.

What would he look like today? What would he be doing?" she wonders.

John Taylor Babbitt, a 16-year old three-sport athlete and picture of good health, collapsed suddenly during a game of pickup basketball in 2006. He died from sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), something his mother says she'd never even heard of.

"In a split second, your life changes forever," JoAnne Babbitt told Spotlight on America. "It just doesn't make sense when you lose a child."

Following the tragedy, the Babbitts turned their pain into action, honoring John's memory by undertaking an effort to make sure no family has to go through what they endured.

They formed the John Taylor Babbitt Foundation with the goal of increasing awareness about sudden cardiac arrest and what can be done to recognize and respond to that specific health crisis.

According to Mary Newman, President of the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation, sudden cardiac arrest is a life-threatening emergency that impacts more than 350,000 people of all ages each year.

It's the third leading cause of death in the United States. Unlike a heart attack, there is no warning. Instead, the heart stops beating unexpectedly, the patient stops breathing and becomes unresponsive.

Tragically, the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation says 90% of people don't survive a sudden cardiac arrest. But there is something that could help increase the odds of survival: automatic external defibrillators, or AEDs.

Last summer, the world was shocked when Danish soccer player Christian Eriksen collapsed from a sudden cardiac arrest and died on the pitch. It was an AED that brought him back to life moments later as his teammates circled around him.

When an AED is used along with CPR, experts say the chance of survival rises to 50%. The best-case scenario, experts say, is that an AED should be available within three minutes to increase the odds of survival during an emergency.

Increasing the odds of survival when it comes to SCA is JoAnne Babbitt's mission. She's spent years teaching people about AEDs and working to make sure this life-saving tool is available in all public spaces. Babbitt showed us an AED she usually carries with her, demonstrating how the device's simple, clear commands make it easy for anyone to use.

You need to have those devices where the public can see them," AED advocate JoAnne Babbitt said. "It is a simple thing. There’s no reason we don't have them in all places of public assembly.

AEDs are so simple to operate, in fact, one study showed sixth-grade children can use the devices without a problem.

We really, really need a national movement to say, this is what sudden cardiac arrest is and you, as a layperson, with the use of your hands, can save a life," said Babbitt.

Despite their known capability to save lives, Spotlight on America discovered AEDs aren't available everywhere, including at many high school games and events across the nation where experts agree they're essential, given that sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death for young athletes.

According to statutes we compiled from the AED Law Center, these states have regulations in place that generally require AEDs in schools:

  1. Alabama
  2. Arkansas
  3. Connecticut
  4. Washington, D.C.
  5. Florida
  6. Georgia
  7. Louisiana
  8. Maryland
  9. Massachusetts
  10. New Jersey
  11. New York
  12. North Dakota
  13. Oregon
  14. Rhode Island
  15. South Carolina
  16. Tennessee
  17. Texas

Our investigation showed only these eight states have language that specifically indicates AEDs should be available near athletic fields or during sporting events:

  1. Arkansas
  2. Connecticut
  3. Georgia
  4. Massachusetts
  5. New Jersey
  6. New York
  7. Texas
  8. West Virginia

But we found that in more than half of the country, there's no formal requirement for AEDs in schools, with some simply encouraging AED availability.

Experts tell us there are three main reasons AEDs are not universally available:

  • Cost
  • Liability
  • Fear

With advancing technology lowering the price of the device, nonprofits offering donations, and the availability of grants, the cost is becoming less of a problem. When it comes to liability, we discovered many states have passed "good Samaritan" laws, which shield bystanders and can provide immunity if they try to help. But fear remains one of the biggest issues when it comes to AED placement and use.

It's something Maryland physician, Dr. Henry Jampel, rejects.

The fear is largely unwarranted," he told us. "One cannot make a mistake and harm someone with an AED. The machine is not going to shock. The machine senses whether there is a heart rhythm or not.

Dr. Jampel is a trained physician, but he's also a survivor of sudden cardiac arrest. In 2000, the Ironman competitor collapsed after a swim workout at a Maryland pool. He was not given that crucial first shock with an AED for 27 minutes because there wasn't one available at the facility where he collapsed.

More than 20 years ago, without widespread AED availability during his emergency, Jampel says his odds of survival were under 1%. But he lived, he says, thanks to a group of friends who quickly stepped in and administered CPR. He recently reunited with that group to thank them again for saving his life. It's something he hopes everyone will be courageous enough to try, regardless of whether an AED is available.

You are in a very special position that most people are never in. You have the opportunity to save a life by yourself," Dr. Henry Jampel, sudden cardiac arrest survivor, told us. "Do it. Don't let it go by.

JoAnne Babbitt also wants bystanders to step in and help in an emergency. Her life's work now, through the foundation she co-founded, is to make sure people have the equipment they need to intervene. Babbitt's efforts have led to AED legislation in New Jersey, and she's also written letters of support for other states working to craft similar laws. One day, she'd love to see federal legislation that requires AEDs in some specific places.

She knows it won't be easy. But Babbitt is proud of the work that's already been done since her son was taken from her. "I take a look at what the landscape looked like when my son passed away to where we are right now. I see progress. Is it enough? Absolutely not. But are we moving forward? Yes we are. I do think we will get there."

As for what her son, John, would think about the effort to save lives being done in his honor, Babbitt says, "He's right there, guiding us. He’d be proud of us."

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