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Fibrillations cause the heart to stop pumping blood, leading to brain damage and/or cardiac arrest. About 10% of the ability to restart the heart is lost with every minute that the heart stays in fibrillation. Death can occur in minutes unless the normal heart rhythm is restored through defibrillation. Because immediate defibrillation is crucial to the patient's survival, the American Heart Association has called for the integration of defibrillation into an effective emergency cardiac care system. The system should include early access, early cardiopulmonary resuscitation, early defibrillation, and early advanced cardiac care.

Defibrillators deliver a brief electric shock to the heart, which enables the heart's natural pacemaker to regain control and establish a normal heart rhythm. The defibrillator is an electronic device with electrocardiogram leads and paddles. During defibrillation, the paddles are placed on the patient's chest, caregivers stand back, and the electric shock is delivered. The patient's pulse and heart rhythm are continually monitored. Medications to treat possible causes of the abnormal heart rhythm may be administered. Defibrillation continues until the patient's condition stabilizes or the procedure is ordered to be discontinued.

Early defibrillators, about the size and weight of a car battery, were used primarily in ambulances and hospitals. The American Heart Association now advocates public access defibrillation; this calls for placing automated external defibrillators (AEDS) in police vehicles, airplanes, and at public events, etc. The AEDS are smaller, lighter, less expensive, and easier to use than the early defibrillators. They are computerized to provide simple, verbal instructions to the operator and to make it impossible to deliver a shock to a patient whose heart is not fibrillating. The placement of AEDs is likely to expand to many public locations.

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