Walt Mossberg

Test Driving a Home Defibrillator

When I had a heart attack seven years ago, I arrived, conscious and alert at a hospital emergency room, where the doctors and nurses proceeded to save my life. In many cases, the standard kind of heart attack I suffered doesn’t kill instantly, and offers a decent chance of survival if the patient is cared for properly — partly because the heart, while damaged, is still beating.

But there’s another type of heart attack that comes on without warning, leaves the victim unconscious, and kills within minutes if emergency treatment isn’t rendered on the spot. It’s called sudden cardiac arrest. In sudden cardiac arrest the heart suddenly stops beating, and the patient will die unless it can be started again within a few minutes. According to the American Heart Association, hundreds of thousands of Americans die each year from such cardiac arrest. The main tool for saving these victims is a device called a heart defibrillator, which uses an electric shock to restart the heart’s beating.

The HeartStart Home Defibrillator, from Philips for  $1,495.
The HeartStart Home Defibrillator, from Philips for $1,495.

“Cardiac arrest is reversible in most victims if it’s treated within a few minutes with an electric shock to the heart to restore a normal heartbeat. This process is called defibrillation,” the association explains on its Web site. “A victim’s chances of survival are reduced by seven to 10% with every minute that passes without defibrillation. Few attempts at resuscitation succeed after 10 minutes.”

In cardiac-arrest cases, it’s crucial to call 911 immediately so emergency medics can speed to the scene. They can use a defibrillator to shock the heart into beating again. But now, you can also buy a simple heart defibrillator meant for home use by average people without medical training. You can use the device to try to restart a stopped heart even before the medics arrive. It even helps you administer Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR).

This week, my assistant Katie Boehret and I tested this new device, the HeartStart Home Defibrillator from Philips. The HeartStart was designed to be simple enough for anyone to use, regardless of age, technical skill or medical knowledge. It is clearly marked with directional drawings and language, and even has vocal prompts that guide the user through each step.

The HeartStart began as a prescription-only device selling for around $1,995. But, by late last year, it was available over the counter, via Web sites like Amazon.com, Drugstore.com and HeartStartHome.com. And the price had dropped to $1,495. Last week, Walgreen’s and Sam’s Club also started carrying the Home Defibrillator online.

The HeartStart is designed for easy portability, or you can just keep it in the home, preferably within close proximity to the room where you and your family spend most of your time. Though its nylon red casing might not exactly blend perfectly with your décor, it won’t be overlooked in an emergency scenario. The device is smaller than a kid’s lunchbox, and weighs about four pounds in its case.

The defibrillator itself zips and Velcros neatly into its red carrying case, which has a large heart image on the front. You can use it without even removing it from the case. Its battery lasts for four years, and can be replaced. Two adhesive pads — enough for a single resuscitation of an adult — are included. The pads come in a simple plastic case that snaps down into the top of the defibrillator, and are good for two years. They can also be replaced; a new set costs $49.

With a prescription, pads designed for infants or children weighing less than 55 pounds can also be purchased from Philips; these cost $85 per pair. Pads for training purposes are also available. New batteries cost $135 each.

Three buttons line the right side of the defibrillator: power, information and shock. Katie watched an explanatory training DVD that comes with the HeartStart before using it, but everything is also explained clearly and frankly in the directions.

Fortunately, we had no victims on which to test the HeartStart. So, we used a set of training pads, which come with a plastic mat that substitutes for a person. The mat bears a drawing of the waist-up outline of a man, nicknamed “Matt.”

The adult training pads cost $75 (children’s pads cost $80) and have a reusable sticky backing so you can restick and reuse each test shock pad multiple times so as to get comfortable enough to perform the procedure in an emergency. The training pads are strictly optional. Philips says most users won’t need them to use the HeartStart successfully in an emergency. But Katie was glad to have them, as she found herself a bit nervous before sending a shock through Matt.

The HeartStart Home Defibrillator, from Philips for  $1,495.

The plastic case holding the shock pads has a clearly labeled blue “pull” handle on it, like a fire alarm. Once the handle is pulled, a voice automatically instructed us to remove all clothing from the victim’s chest. Fabric scissors are included in the top flap of the defibrillator’s case because Philips learned that, strangely enough, rescuers too often hesitated to tear or ruin the victim’s clothing.

Since Matt was already topless, we listened to the next instruction, which told us to peel off the pad container’s seal, remove the shock pads and stick them onto the victim’s body by following the diagrams on each sticky pad. These diagrams showed us that we needed to stick one pad onto Matt’s upper chest area and another onto his abdomen.

The pads use digital technology to immediately analyze the heart’s rhythm to determine whether he or she needs a shock (the voice explains what is happening during this process). If a shock is needed, the voice instructs you not to touch the victim, and to press the blinking shock button. After the shock is administered, the HeartStart takes stock of the victim’s status to see whether he or she needs another shock.

If the victim doesn’t need a shock, which happened in one of our tests with Matt, the voice tells you to press the blinking blue information button for step-by-step CPR directions. These include carefully paced instructions telling you when to breathe into the victim and an audible rhythm you should follow when applying pressure to the chest.

The HeartStart performs constant maintenance checks on itself right after the battery is snapped into place, so even if you forget to replace the battery after four years, the device will remind you with a chirping sound. A flashing green button can be seen through the red case, so you know the device is always on standby and ready to be used.

The HeartStart Home Defibrillator is a well-designed and easy-to-use device that doesn’t intimidate or scare off average users. Whether you’re using the instruction booklet or following the automatic voice instructions, you won’t have any trouble using the HeartStart. And even though it’s pricey, its cost pales next to the value of the lives it might save.

With reporting by Katherine Boehret

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com


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