Some airports, sports stadiums, schools, shopping malls and other public places already have automated external defibrillators, or AEDs, the devices used to "shock" cardiac arrest victims into regular heart rhythms. More AEDs will arrive in American homes over the coming holiday season. As these lifesavers in a box become more common, you may one day see someone wanting to help a person who has collapsed, but crying out, "I don't know how to use this thing!"

Once you finish reading this article, you'll be able to step forward in a cardiac emergency and operate an AED. The steps are very simple, according to Dr. Mickey Eisenberg, professor of emergency medicine in the University of Washington School of Medicine:

• Call 911 to get emergency medical assistance heading your way.

• Open the box and press the button marked "power." In some versions, just opening the box turns the device on.

• Follow the spoken directions the software gives you. The device will take you through the procedure step by step, and will not go on to the next step until you have completed the preceding one.

• Remember that the AED will only deliver a charge if its software detects the kind of heart rhythm that it is intended to treat, ventricular fibrillation. "It will not deliver a shock in any other condition," Eisenberg says. "If an AED is applied to someone who has a normal heart rhythm, or if you were to apply it to yourself to see how it works, it won't do anything. It is an incredibly safe device."

Of course, you have to use a little common sense. In other words, you wouldn't allow children to play with an AED and you wouldn't try to use it on someone who was conscious and breathing normally.

"You would only use it in one situation: cardiac arrest," Eisenberg emphasizes. "That means that a person has collapsed, they are unconscious and they are not breathing normally, although they may be gasping or making snoring noises."

One concern that may keep some would-be rescuers from using AEDs could be the fear of being sued. In most states, Good Samaritan laws prevent lawsuits against people who try to save lives by administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation, known as CPR, or using an AED.

"There has never been a successful lawsuit against anyone performing these life-saving acts," Eisenberg says. "I think an argument could be made that if you had an AED at hand and you did not use it, you could be legally liable."

Keep in mind that AEDs are very sophisticated, "intelligent" devices. An AED will only deliver a shock in one situation - when its sensors detect ventricular fibrillation.

Eisenberg says, "The most important thing is to take action: call for help and then grab the device when you see that someone has collapsed."

Health Beat is a service of University of Washington UW Medicine/Health Sciences News and Community Relations.

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