Saving souls—and hearts: what is happening in one Oceanside, California, church community can happen throughout the nation – Open Forum

Philip J. Goscienski

When the 63-year-old pastor of a Catholic church in New York City collapsed from a heart attack during midday services, his congregation froze, momentarily bewildered. Seconds later, cell phones emerged from pockets and purses, their owners tapping out 9-1-1 almost in unison. It took several minutes for the ambulance crew to arrive, but only a few more to determine that the monsignor was beyond recovery.

If that scenario had taken place 3,300 miles to the west, the outcome might have been different.

At the Church of St. Thomas More in Oceanside, California, there are usually at least a dozen members of the congregation at every service who are trained to recognize such an emergency, provide cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), and (most important) to restore a normal rhythm to the just-damaged heart.

In that sunny sanctuary facing the Pacific Ocean, no one is more than a few seconds from an automated external defibrillator (AED) and a team that knows how to use it. In less than one year, more than 100 churchgoers here have learned how to respond within moments to what physicians call a sudden cardiac event.

The Can-Do Congregation

The St. Thomas More parish is young, but many of its members are not. Its demographics closely resemble the Southern California coastal community of which it is a part. Both are weighted toward late middle age, where heart attacks–almost half of which are immediately fatal–are common.

A physician in the congregation, aware of the vulnerability of such a group and knowledgeable about AEDs, proposed the purchase of a unit to the pastor. Rev. Peter McGuine approved the acquisition without hesitation. Only days after its arrival, a core team of doctors, nurses, and dentists received instruction in its use from an American Red Cross instructor.

When the medical director of the AED team gave a three-minute presentation to the church audience after every service on two weekends, the response wondrously exceeded his expectations. More than 200 persons asked to join the team. Less than one year after the core group attended the first class, more than 100 individuals had been certified in adult CPR and use of the AED.

There are now four instructors within the parish. They offer one or two classes almost every week, including “CPR Tune-Ups.” These are monthly walk-in sessions during which those who are already certified in CPR and use of the AED encounter a realistic scenario. It allows them to review their skills, from recognizing an emergency to delivering a defibrillating jolt to “St. Annikin,” one of four practice manikins that the church has purchased.

Only A Start

It didn’t take long for the instructors to recognize that there were other opportunities for making a difference in the lives of the parish family. When the Church of St. Thomas More moved from a storefront location to its own all-purpose facility on six acres with high visibility, scores of new, younger families joined. There are now hundreds of children in this 1,200-family community, enough to justify a class aimed at parents, grandparents, and babysitters: Infant-Child CPR. Accidents are the leading causes of death in persons younger than 16 years. Breathing problems, not heart problems, cause many of those tragedies. CPR techniques are broadly similar at all ages. The Infant-Child course shows participants how to prevent, as well as recognize, the special dangers to which children are susceptible.

The elderly population of any community presents special challenges and special opportunities. About 75 percent of heart attacks occur in the victim’s home, where a family member who is able to recognize a life-threatening problem, activate the emergency response system, and provide CPR can buy precious minutes. Many stroke victims die or sustain irreversible brain damage because persons close to them do not realize what has occurred, and are not aware that speedy diagnosis and treatment may allow these patients to return to a virtually normal life.

The St. Thomas More program includes Family and Friends, a course that the American Heart Association has designed to address these issues. Family and Friends does not require a written exam and does not provide a certificate of completion. Participants who lack flexibility and strength or whose arthritic hands, knees, and back limit their ability to do chest compressions have much to gain from the course. The classroom scenarios make them aware of the guises in which heart attacks and strokes sometimes appear. Realistic examples, videos, and watching other students practice their skills remove some of the mystery, fear, confusion, and panic that permeate actual emergencies. There are some elements of making a 9-1-1 call, the knowledgeable execution of which might shorten the emergency squad’s response time by several minutes. Participants learn how to keep an airway open in a manner that will not tax the strength of any but the most frail spouse.

The instructor team considers monthly reviews to be an extremely valuable element of what has now evolved into an extensive curriculum that extends far beyond the earliest goal of simply making an AED available. Anyone who has taken a course in CPR recognizes that such skills are difficult to maintain without constant use or practice. Even the physicians, nurses, and technicians who confront cardiac and respiratory emergencies every single day must undergo periodic refresher courses and drills. Police and fire departments allocate one full day every 12 months to reinforce these skills among all their personnel. It’s even more important for the schoolteacher, taxi driver, sales clerk, or day-care attendant–all of whom interact with dozens of people daily–to devote at least a few minutes every few weeks to sustain skills that may save a life.

Burns, wounds, seizures, heat and cold injuries, toxic exposures, and other hazards are topics that constitute the core of a first-aid class, the latest addition to the program that the church offers. This is a fitting response to President George W. Bush’s call for volunteerism in the wake of last year’s September tragedy.

A slight variation on a Biblical phrase represents the sum of all this Effort: “Where two or more are gathered together, one of you ought to know CPR.”

Only An Example

The Church of St. Thomas More is only a moderate-sized faith community, yet its more than 120 recipients of CPR-AED training represent a large and valuable community resource. In schools and senior centers, playgrounds and parks, offices and shopping malls, they are capable of responding quickly and confidently to victims whose lives or quality of life depend on timely, skilled intervention. To be sure, CPR will not save every heart attack victim, especially those whose hearts have been weakened by earlier assaults or who sustain massive, irreparable damage from even a first episode. Nor will CPR halt ventricular fibrillation, which only early defibrillation can counter. But CPR does buy time until skilled rescuers appear on the scene. Where an AED is available, CPR widens the window for this lifesaving instrument to make a difference.

What is happening in Oceanside, California, can happen throughout the nation. Consider the possibility of 10,000 churches, each training only 100 persons in these lifesaving skills. The American Heart Association notes that almost one-half million Americans will die from heart attacks this year. About half of those will die almost immediately. Given that early defibrillation has raised the survival rate tenfold, one million church-trained rescuers nationwide could help hundreds of thousands of victims live beyond their heart attack during the next decade.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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