SEATTLE Chris Nefcy helped develop a life-saving machine. Years later, his was one of the lives saved.
Nefcy, an electrical engineer and software programmer, was working at Providence Hospital in the 1980s, analyzing EKGs and writing a program that would give physicians a faster and easier way to analyze heart data.
At that time, defibrillators were used only by physicians and trained specialists. They were not the compact, portable, easy-to-use instruments we know today.
About the same time, a local company, First Medic, was created to produce what it called a “semi-automatic defibrillator” – one that could read heart rhythms and decide if electric shock was needed.
“Their goal was to get a defibrillator that could work in the hands of first responders,” Nefcy said. And Nefcy happened to have the skills and data they needed. He became their first consultant. His fee? A case of Sam Adams beer.
Within a year, he was hired by the firm to build the information systems for the defibrillator.
The result was an AED, automatic external defibrillator, and Seattle’s First Medic was one of the first to market it. Laws were changed so ordinary people could use them. The company’s goal was to create AEDs that could be placed wherever they were needed to save lives.
About 75 percent of cardiac arrests occur in homes. The rest occur in public settings – a football stadium or the health club, for example. To save someone’s life, help has to arrive quickly, and an AED is an integral part of the lifesaving process. CPR plays a role, and getting a patient to the hospital quickly is important.
Nefcy had a cardiac arrest at 8:11 p.m., April 12, 2006, on a basketball court at the PRO Club in Bellevue. He’d just nailed a three-pointer.
His friend, Bryan Willison, had recruited Nefcy to make up a team that day. The two had played and worked together for years.
“He showed up and seemed to be struggling a bit through the first half,” Willison said. “At halftime he said he was having trouble, but we had no substitutes so he wasn’t leaving.”
Four minutes into the third quarter, Nefcy collapsed in the key. “I looked back and saw Chris wasn’t getting up,” Willison said. “He was definitely out.”
Willison and others yelled for help and two club staffers started CPR. They hooked him up to an AED and hit the button. They got his heart going, but his breathing was irregular. Firemen arrived, hooked up an IV, and took him to the hospital.
He was there for two weeks. A stent was put in one part of his heart and he later had heart bypass surgery.
Today, he’s working as a software consultant, playing basketball and coaching a girls team at Roosevelt High, a team that presented him with a “Dead Man Walking” T-shirt he wears with pride.
“I think it’s a cool story that something I helped build saved my life years later,” Nefcy said.
He was lucky. Dr. Mickey Eisenberg, professor of medicine at the University of Washington and medical director for King County emergency medical services, said about 155,000 people a year in the United States (1,200-1,400 in King County) experience cardiac arrest and receive CPR. About 60,000 of them receive a defibrillatory shock. Only 8.4 percent of the 155,000 survive, but of those receiving a shock, the survival rate is 17.7 percent.
Seattle has a survival rate of 46 percent, he said; Detroit reports less than 1 percent.
Mark Gausman, former chief executive officer of First Medic, said he spent 25 years of his life trying to get AEDs widely used.
“At the time we started the company, there was an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association stressing the need to get defibrillators into the hands of lay people. Twenty years later, there are still ambulances in this country driving around without defibrillators on board,” Gausman said.
“We’re nowhere near where we need to be to save a lot of lives. You can’t save a person in cardiac arrest without a defibrillator. A 10-year-old can operate one. I’ve seen it done.”
The UW’s Eisenberg also is a strong advocate.
“Defibrillators are safe,” he said. “They speak to you. If you need more help, a 911 operator can walk you through the process, and can also lead you through CPR. That’s the bottom line. If you have an AED, use it.”