AUG. 9, 2008 was the day that Danville doctor Joseph Farrell died.

The then-56-year-old was at a memorial dinner in Rocklin when he suffered sudden cardiac arrest. Turning a blackish blue, Farrell dropped to the floor.

"I thought he was choking at first," says his wife, Edie Farrell. But he wasn't choking. His heart had stopped.

Talk to Joseph Farrell about the day — and you can because someone at the party knew CPR — and he will weep. If Aug. 9 were his last day on Earth, he wouldn't ever see his daughters get married, never meet his future grandkids.

"It's humbling," he says. "One second you're there then you're gone."

Farrell owes his life to many medical interventions that day but primarily to the track coach who performed CPR on him and to the ambulance that had an defibrillator.

He and Edie have now made it their life's mission to teach CPR and advocate for laymen's defibrillators, automated external defibrillators (AED), to be in every school and public building in Contra Costa County and eventually the state.

AEDs are already required at California health clubs and many airports and casinos because of the high numbers of people who pass through those places. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration suggests that all workplaces have an AED on-site.


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Sudden cardiac arrest is a condition where someone's heart stops pumping blood to the body because of an electrical problem, according to the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association. It is different from a heart attack in that heart attacks are caused by blocked arteries and usually come with a symptom such as chest pain and dizziness. In the case of sudden cardiac arrest, people drop dead without warning.

"They could be walking, they could be talking and they just drop dead and that's it," says the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association's Jack Grogan, who was saved after suffering cardiac arrest while visiting an airport.

Sudden cardiac arrest doesn't just happen to people who are older or wrought with health problems. Young people, especially athletes, also die from the condition.

In fact, according to the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association, nearly 1,000 people die every day in the United States from sudden cardiac arrest, one person every two minutes — and 30 percent of them are younger than 30.

While only about 6 percent of people are saved without any intervention, the survival rate for sudden cardiac arrest with CPR and defibrillator intervention hovers around 30 percent.

When someone suffers sudden cardiac arrest, says American Heart Association spokesman Mike Jacobs, several things need to happen.

What to do

First, emergency services need to be called. Second, CPR needs to be performed to keep the heart in a rhythm so it can be defibrillated and keep blood pumping. Third, the heart needs to be shocked with a defibrillator. Then, finally, advance life support needs to be started by medical professionals.

"If you don't do anything, their chance of survival is nil to none," Jacobs says.

Jacobs is working to get more people trained in CPR by passing out $34.95 "CPR Anytime" kits to seventh-grade students for free; he is currently trying to find money for that program.

A few years ago, Jacobs passed out the kits —which include video instruction and a mannequin to practice pressure-only CPR on — to seventh-grade and high school students in different schools around Alameda County.

According to his research, the seventh-graders were more likely to take the kit home and show the video and the mannequin to four more people.

Teaching the teachers

His plan is to find money to get all 20,000 Alameda County seventh-graders a kit so they can teach up to 100,000 people how to do CPR.

"Then you'll at least know what to do when somebody collapses," Jacobs says.

Next, people like Farrell are advocating for more AEDs in the community and schools. Unlike the large defibrillators in ambulances and hospitals and on TV shows, AEDs can be the size of a salad plate and provide instructions to the user on how to operate the machine.

For example, a company like HeartSine, based out of Pennsylvania, sells devices for $1,400 that give vocal instructions at the press of a button. It instructs the user to take small pads out of the device and put them on a victim's chest. The AED then measures the heartbeat and decides whether they need an electric shock.

Fail-safe equipment

By measuring the heart's rhythms, AEDs make it impossible to give a shock to a person who doesn't need it.

"And we continually remind people that you can't hurt a dead person," says Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association's Grogan.

The key to helping someone, Jacobs says, is to learn how to help and pushing aside any fears of helping.

"Don't be afraid to help. If someone's in cardiac arrest they have nowhere to go but up," he says.

Reach Laura Casey at lcasey@bayareanewsgroup.com or 925-952-2697.