TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Quail Creek Country Club in North Naples was one of the Collier County businesses that wanted to put its portable, heart-starting devices known as AEDs to use.
If someone went into cardiac arrest on the golf course, dispatchers would call ahead to the clubhouse where 60 staffers were trained in first aid. The sooner the heart gets shocked, the better. Every lost minute could be fatal.
But in May, Quail Creek's longtime fitness director Kate Kerwin was outraged to learn her arrangement was illegal on health privacy grounds, and dispatchers had been prohibited from that kind of communication.
Her outrage inspired new legislation on the move in Florida's Capitol that would sideline health privacy in life-or-death situations. Proponents celebrated a victory Thursday when Naples state Rep. Kathleen Passimomo's bill passed the House of Representatives unanimously.
If it clears the Senate and becomes law, officials at Collier County EMS say they can finally go ahead with a plan years in the making to register as many automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) as they can. Once they know where they are, in offices and condos across the county, EMS and dispatchers can put them to use.
"When you look at our survival rate, which in Collier County is still some of the best on the planet, the huge difference in most cases is how fast the first shock is delivered in cardiac arrest," said Robert Tober, medical director for Collier EMS.
Cardiac arrest is perhaps the leading cause of death in the U.S., he said, and "AEDs are usually the linchpin of whether they survive or don't survive."
When a victim's heartbeat turns irregular or dysfunctional, an electrical shock through AED electrodes placed on the chest can force the heart to contract and possibly re-establish a normal rhythm.
Frustrated at not being able to help, Quail Creek's Kerwin blasted state and federal lawmakers, "every single person I could think of," with emails, she said.
Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's office said the problem was a state, not a federal, matter. Gov. Rick Scott's office told her to check with the county government. Kerwin kept pushing and finally got Passidomo's attention.
"It was such a simple issue, and we get all bogged down with the privacy," the Republican lawmaker said. "The person having the coronary doesn't care. Can you imagine if someone died because the 911 dispatcher couldn't call the clubhouse?"
Collier County's record on AED use is checkered with success and tragedy.
The urgency of defibrillation was brought to light in 2007 when 38-year-old Tony Hiller died at the Community School of Naples as his teenage son tried to retrieve an AED from the nurse's locked office.
By the numbers
Collier County sheriff's deputies have more than 640 AEDs in cruisers and in their offices. They cost about $1,000 apiece.
Then a month later that year, a Golden Gate Community Center supervisor jolted a lifeless senior who collapsed playing basketball with a nearby AED, saving the man's life. It was the fourth time Collier Parks and Recreation had successfully revived someone with an AED.
At the time, there were nearly 1,000 AEDs throughout Collier County, in condos, churches, hotels and businesses. Often, law enforcement officers arrive on scene faster than paramedics do, and Collier County sheriff's deputies have more than 640 AEDs in cruisers and in their offices, Capt. Michael Hedberg said.
They cost about $1,000 apiece.
Despite broad support for what many say is common-sense legislation, the course of Passidomo's bill hasn't been entirely without obstacle. At least one lawmaker raised questions about liability, but supporters insist dispatchers would call on only those who have volunteered, and Good Samaritan laws would protect them from lawsuits.
To complicate matters, Passidomo had reached the limit on the number of bills she could sponsor, so she tacked it to another state representative's legislation. But soon it became clear that bill was doomed by committee chairs who wouldn't give it a hearing.
"I was frantic," Passidomo said, and she instructed her legislative aide, Kevin Comerer, to find a bill, any bill, related to 911 services in the hope of piggy-backing the AED language onto it.
Kerwin sent Passidomo an email.
"This is frustrating," she wrote. "To know that there is a bill that may save people's lives that can't be filed because of quotas on how many can be filed by one representative just doesn't make sense."
But they soon filed an amendment to a bill sponsored by a Sarasota lawmaker dealing with enhancing 911 capabilities for cell phone calls.
Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, helped push an identical amendment onto the companion Senate bill, which is scheduled for two more committee stops before the full Senate can take it up for vote. It's schedule for a budget subcommittee Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Collier officials are laying the groundwork for installing a map-like database of AED locations with help from a Boca Raton-based company called Atrus, which is allowing the county to test the system at no cost.
Tober said they're ready, just waiting for July 1, when the bill would become law.