Should You Buy an At-Home Defibrillator?

To celebrate her victory over breast cancer, 35-year-old Anel Mendez decided to take the trip of her dreams -- to Paris -- with her aunt.

During a layover at the busy Los Angeles International airport, Mendez, a mother and teacher from Phoenix, heard herself paged over the airport public-alert system: She was standing at the wrong gate, and her plane was about to depart.

Mendez and her aunt made a mad dash for the correct gate, but they didn't make the flight. Mendez collapsed, suffering from cardiac arrest. Police and a woman on the scene quickly came to her rescue, delivering two shocks from a public defibrillator. It saved her life.

Mendez was so grateful that she has become an advocate for widespread access to public defibrillators.

"I learned that every minute counts, and having access to a defibrillator is crucial to saving people's lives," she said.

Clearly, defibrillators save lives. And another device, the Phillips HeartStart Home Defibrillator, promises to bring this lifesaving tool right to American homes without the need of a doctor's prescription.

But at a cost of about $1,250, is this product worth the price? It depends whom you ask.

The product is used primarily to treat victims of sudden cardiac arrest, which kills about 1,000 people a day, and half of them have no previously reported symptoms of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. More people die from sudden cardiac arrest than from breast cancer, prostate cancer, AIDS, house fires, handguns and traffic accidents combined.

Sudden cardiac arrest is a chaotic electrical malfunction of the heart that causes it to quiver erratically and cease to effectively pump blood. An electrical shock can get the heart back on track before the brain dies. A defibrillator is recognized as the only treatment for the most common causes of this this type of sudden attack.

If caught in time, these attacks can sometimes be treated with defibrillators. However, a defibrillator is by no means the main treatment for heart attacks. For example, the late Enron founder Ken Lay was rumored to have defibrillators scattered throughout his homes and as well as on his private jet, but doctors have pointed out that there are times when an attack is too much for any treatment and the machines become useless.

So should you have your own defibrillator? Maybe, said doctors.

Dr. Ira Nash, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, likes the idea of defibrillators being available to the masses, but he doesn't want people to get a false sense of security.

"It's first aid, but not definitive treatment. Defibrillators can be lifesaving, but not all cardiac emergency causes are treatable in this way. These devices can discharge a shock and correct rhythm disturbances, but a massive heart attack may have other serious consequences that the device would not be able to fix," Nash said.

Nash said he made sure his house of worship had a public defibrillator installed, but he does not see a need for every person to run out and purchase one for the home.

"It's a good idea for some people who fall into the target risk group to have access to defibrillators, but this is not the type of thing that every family needs to stock like Band-Aids in a medicine cabinet," he said. "It comes down to whether you think the risk is high enough and it's worth the money to keep around. If you are at risk, you should be under treatment."

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