LITTLETON, Colo. — Cardiac arrest can happen to just about anyone, at any time. When it happens outside of a hospital, it’s almost always deadly. But if there’s an automated external defibrillator (AED) nearby, you’re twice as likely to survive.
Kara Baker, a cardiology nurse at AdventHealth in Littleton, knows the importance of AEDs, not just through her work but her family’s own tragic experience.
“My dad, Ed Walsh, spent a large chunk of his life dedicated to placing AEDs inside of elementary schools,” Baker said.
But when Walsh collapsed on an elementary school soccer field in 2018, the only AED nearby was locked away inside. Although Baker acted quickly – calling 911 and starting chest compressions, “a brick wall stood between my dad and a potentially lifesaving device,” she said.
“Despite everyone's best effort, it still crushes me to say that he passed away later that day,” Baker said. “I knew I had to make it my mission to show my dad that we were going to be okay. That this tragedy was not going to define us, but instead teach us how to take a difficult situation and turn it into an opportunity to carry on his legacy.”
Five years later, Baker made good on that mission.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday at Euclid Middle School, Baker unveiled one of nine AEDs being installed outside of Littleton Public Schools. The AdventHealth Littleton Foundation paid for the SaveStation units, which will be available to the public 24/7.
AdventHealth’s Chief Medical Officer Matt Mendenhall said placing devices like this in the community will support the hospital’s mission.
"We have to figure out ways to distribute technology and expertise out into the community if we're truly going to save lives,” Mendenhall said.
The SaveStation AEDs are easy to use and can’t do harm, a company representative said. First, call 911. Then start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Finally, use the AED.
“All you have to do is press the button, turn it on and listen to the instructions. It will walk you through everything,” the representative said.
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Across the United States, sudden cardiac arrest causes an estimated 325,000 deaths every year. In Colorado, at least 3,727 cases of cardiac arrest were reported in 2021, the most recent year for which the state has data.
In 2022, Colorado became the first state to establish an office within its state health department dedicated to collecting data on cardiac arrest incidents and finding ways to increase survival rates.
The Office of Cardiac Arrest Management recently launched a website highlighting the importance of early intervention in cardiac arrest survival. Gabi Johnston, a spokesperson for the health department, said the website will soon include a list of education programs in Colorado that teach life-saving skills.
“We are collaborating with instructors and encouraging them to provide information about their CPR training programs so we can publish it on our website,” Johnston said.
The new Office of Cardiac Arrest Management is also figuring out how to create a registry of all AEDs available across the state.
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This year, Colorado passed a law encouraging public schools to teach high school students how to do CPR and use AEDs.
Barbara Walsh, the widow of Ed and Baker’s mother, said she hopes awareness about cardiac arrest and how to improve survival rates will continue to grow. She said that although cardiac arrest often enters the public discourse when incidents happen — such as when NFL player Damar Hamlin collapsed during a game — that focus fades fast.
"It has to continue to save lives. We need these AEDs, these SaveStations, in public areas so that nobody has to go through losing a loved one like I did,” Walsh said.
As the family continues to cope with their grief, Baker said her mission continues. She’s reaching out to other school districts, local parks and other outdoor spaces to keep making AEDs more accessible.
“I have dealt with my grief with the saying, "Honor those who have passed with how you move forward." And that's exactly what I've done,"” she said.