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Posted: 1/25/2011

Most churches may be particularly prone to incidents of cardiac arrest because they usually include congregations of widely mixed age groups, from infants to the elderly, making them a wide statistical target for a cardiac occurrence.  Children sometimes have undetected heart conditions that have not yet been diagnosed and elderly parishioners may suffer from a host of health or vascular conditions that place them at an increased risk for heart disease.

71 Year Old Parishioner Saved by AED in Service

Sallie Sims can attest the imminent reality of cardiac arrest in churches.  She was just wondering if she knew the fourth verse to “No Setting Sun” when she collapsed at the CrossPoint Church of Christ in Alabama on September, 20.  “I finished the song and then, the next thing, I was in an ambulance, and a man was trying to put oxygen on me,” Sims said. “I told him I didn’t like having anything on my face.”

CrossPoint purchased the machine in 2006 on the recommendation of an elder, and staff members rushed to get the device when Sims fell over out of her seat. “Someone yelled, ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’ and luckily we had several there at that time, and they rushed to her,” said Frank Mills, CrossPoint’s preacher.

Bob Man, a local physician in the congregation said Sims didn’t have a pulse and was turning blue. “We were giving CPR by compressions and mouth-to-mouth, and she was shocked (with the defibrillator),” he said.  Before the AED applied a second shock, Sallie started breathing again.

Sallie didn’t have a history of heart problems and didn’t have any symptoms the day of the funeral. “Based on what I’ve been told, I’m convinced if not for the church having that (AED) she would not be with us today,” said Sims’ niece, Stacy White. “She was gone; there was no heart beat, but thanks to the defibrillator, she’s alive.”

AED Stats

As Sallie Sims will tell you, having an AED in an accessible location in the building is a smart move for churches. The national survival rate for sudden cardiac is approximately 5%, and the chances of being resuscitated diminish by 10% for every minute that passes without a heartbeat, which can only be restored during arrhythmia by an electric shock to the heart. If defibrillation is received in the first 3-5 minutes of cardiac arrest, the survival stat improves to better than 65%.


Another man, Mark Hilsgen shares a similar story, waking up one Sunday with no recollection of his collapse to discover his life was saved by an AED during mass. October 17, 2010 Hilsgen went to Sunday morning mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church in St. Joseph, MN.  Hilsgen went to Mass alone, unaccompanied by his wife and daughters who were attending the next service, tired from attending a wedding the day before. Hilsgen didn’t have any known heart conditions or history and had no prior indicators, but suddenly lost heart function, breathing, and consciousness when he went into sudden cardiac arrest in his pew.  

Justin Honor, St. Joseph assistant fire chief and Hilsgen’s cousin who regularly attends the 8 a.m. mass, was one of the last parishioners to take communion and saw the line stop on the way back to his pew.  A fellow parishioner waved him over and as he got closer, he identified Hilsgen. He moved quickly into action, checking for a pulse. There was a faint pulse for a moment, but then it was gone. Pete Jansky, St. Joseph’s police chief was also present and helped move Hilsgen out of the pew and onto the floor.  Janksy, who had been trained in CPR for 33 years, and Mary Jo Lemke, a cardiac care nurse at St. Cloud Hospital for 30 years, took turns giving CPR while Honor ran quickly to his truck to retrieve the AED he carried as the central unit for the local fire department. The AED monitored Hilsgen’s heartbeat and instructed the team to deliver three shocks. After the second shock he showed a response and started breathing again.

“I usually go the 10 a.m. mass, Honor commented, undoubtedly contemplating what may have happened if he had not been in the same location as Honor’s AED.

Setting Up Your Church

As more stories emerge recalling AED’s saves in churches, it’s clear that if your church doesn’t already have an AED program, church leaders should seriously consider implementing one.  When looking for an AED, assess your church’s need and determine how many AED’s will be required based on the church’s size and layout.  If it’s a large church, make sure an AED can be quickly reached from all areas.  Furthermore, select a response team – either church staff or volunteers – who will receive AED training be present at most, if not all, church functions. There are many grant programs and alternative funding sources available to help churches afford an AED. 

Numerous AED retailers and medical supply companies, such as AED-SHOP.com (www.aed-shop.com) can be found online and offer specialty packages for churches. So be prepared in your parish and get an AED today – it may just save a life.

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