These life-saving devices are everywhere. But could you find one when you need it?

Sean Ferguson didn’t have a pulse for 11 minutes.

In the summer of 2016, Ferguson, then 23, went into cardiac arrest while playing pickup basketball with friends at the field house at Cape Breton University.

Ferguson doesn’t remember much of that day. He was a month away from his wedding. He tries to avoid thinking about how his wife might have had to plan a funeral instead. 

“I was told that for 11 minutes I was clinically dead, pronounced dead … that’s what the ambulance drivers and the doctors told my family and the boys that were there that day.” 

As he lay on the court, someone called 911 and another friend sprinted to a nearby rink to grab a defibrillator. Used along with CPR, the device’s shock helped stop Ferguson’s heart from quivering erratically — resetting it to a normal rhythm and keeping him alive. 

The Nova Scotia government is still working on ensuring people who call 911 for help during a cardiac arrest can receive directions to the nearest defibrillator.

Life-saving portable defibrillators are in schools, rinks, businesses and community centres across Atlantic Canada. But there’s a problem: Even 911 dispatchers often don’t know the locations. 1:24

In Ferguson’s case, he later found out there was an even closer defibrillator — less than 10 metres from where he collapsed. Luckily, his friends were still able to bring a device to him in a matter of minutes

“In a scenario like that, you’re so scrabbly, your adrenaline is so high and your reactions may not be as composed as they normally are. For you to make one phone call and be told where it is, I feel like that is huge in being able to save lives,” he said.

A 2017 CBC News investigation found many defibrillators in Atlantic Canada are not registered with provincial authorities, and emergency dispatchers in Nova Scotia don’t even know where they are located, making it impossible to direct bystanders to nearby devices.

Since then, the Nova Scotia government has installed new software — but it hasn’t started using it. Staff are still getting rid of technical glitches, said paramedic Mike Janczyszyn, who co-ordinates a provincial registry of automated external defibrillators, or AEDs.

“We’ve encountered more delays than we’d like already … we are aggressively working toward that right now,” he said.

When it starts running, an alert will pop up in EHS’s communications centre when there’s a defibrillator within 1,200 metres of a cardiac arrest. That way, the dispatchers can tell people on the scene exactly where to find one. Similar programs have been running for years in other parts of Canada.

A newly expanded and renovated EHS dispatch centre opened in November in Halifax. The dispatchers are required to ask 911 callers if there’s a defibrillator in the area. Eventually, they’ll receive an alert notifying them when there’s one close to a caller’s address. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

The automated external defibrillator used on Ferguson is one of about 700 registered devices sprinkled across Nova Scotia.  

They’re often stationed in gyms, movie theatres, malls and rinks. Getting to them quickly is crucial when someone is experiencing cardiac arrest. 

“Every minute that passes without an [automated external defibrillator], your chance of survival go down by about seven to 10 per cent,” said Janczyszyn.

Paramedic Mike Janczyszyn co-ordinates EHS’s automated external defibrillator registry. (CBC)

When someone collapses, people often don’t reach for a defibrillator because they don’t know where to find one, he said. And research shows even when people are trained, they may not do CPR. 

“There’s no liability involved with using an AED as long as you’re using it properly,” said Janczyszyn. “It actually tells you exactly what to do. The most important thing with using an AED is grabbing it and turning it on.”

Janczyszyn has been trying to ensure all the devices in Nova Scotia are included in the provincial registry so directions to them will be available in an emergency. He’s helped doubled the number of registered devices since last December.

Not all of them are considered publicly accessible and Janczyszyn estimates the number of registered devices could be less than half of the defibrillators available.

“They need to be out in the public. They don’t need to be behind closed doors or locked doors but they need to be in publicly accessible areas to be effective,” he said. 

EHS has upped its promotion and has been holding information sessions in an effort to encourage organizations to sign up their devices. As of November, it was possible to do so online.

It’s possible to purchase a defibrillator that is enclosed in a heated case so it doesn’t freeze in the winter and the battery doesn’t die. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

When people register, they can decide whether to list their device as publicly accessible and also opt to be “responders,” meaning they will be notified when there’s a cardiac arrest within 1,200 metres of their defibrillator.

“You could get a text message or voice call that there’s a cardiac arrest nearby and respond with your AED. That kind of eliminates some of the time as opposed to someone just being at the scene and bringing it back,” said Janczyszyn. “The more people to help you out in that scenario, the better.”

So far, 78 people have signed up. 

“We’d love to have the numbers higher but it’s based on preference of anyone who registered. Seventy-eight is a great number when you look at it. That’s 78 additional bystanders or rescuers in Nova Scotia that are willing to help,” he said.

Alyssa and Sean Ferguson on their wedding date, almost exactly a month after Sean nearly died. (Credit: Anita Clements)

After Ferguson’s close call, he spent 22 days in hospital in Halifax and Sydney.  Due to a heart condition — hypertrophic cardiomyopathy subcutaneous — a type of defibrillator is now implanted in his chest.

Two and a half years later, he’s celebrating the holidays with his wife and young son. He recommends people experiencing heart issues get blood work done and an EKG, just in case. He always keeps an eye out for the devices that saved his life. 

“I say this to people and business owners and friends, it’s just so easy to have one,” he said. “I do everything I can to be positive, upbeat and educate people.”

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