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Defibrillator champion is saved by one himself

  • Story Highlights
  • Heart association official suffered cardiac arrest in a Texas airport
  • His life was saved by an automated external defibrillator
  • His group pressed to have the AEDs place in the airport months earlier
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By Matt Sloane
CNN Medical Producer
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(CNN) -- Retirement hasn't been full of lazy days, rounds of golf and luxury vacations for Gary Terry. When this former telecommunications executive called it quits after a 32-year career, he took up an equally time-consuming volunteer job as chairman of the American Heart Association's Texas chapter.

Gary Terry says his being saved by a public defibrillator he'd pressed for was "divine intervention."

Gary Terry says his being saved by a public defibrillator he'd pressed for was "divine intervention."

"I believe the Lord chose me to lead that group," said Terry, who lives in Hurst, Texas. But his "sign from the Lord" came, not in the form of a dream or a mysterious figure in his morning toast. Instead, it came in the form of a cardiac arrest by the security checkpoint at the Austin airport.

"I was trying to get back to the metroplex because I had a meeting the next morning. I reached down to pick up my briefcase, and I kept going."

Here's where the story takes an ironic twist: Gary Terry collapsed just 18 feet from an automated external defibrillator AED that he and his group -- the American Heart Association -- helped to install just eight months earlier.

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"A lot of people say there's a lot of circumstances in your situation that really are unique," said Terry, "and I say no, they're not unique circumstances -- they're divine intervention. And I truly believe that."

But the circumstances of Terry's experience are unique, because there was a defibrillator nearby, and somebody knew how to use it. Video Watch more on the heart official saved by a defibrillator he pushed for »

"When somebody stops breathing and they hit the ground, for all intents and purposes, they're dead," says Dr. Art Kellermann, noted defibrillator advocate and professor of emergency medicine at Emory University. "There are a few minutes where you can reach through the door and pull them back from death if you act decisively."

And acting decisively, says Kellermann, means following the four links in the "chain of survival." Visit CNNhealth, your connection for better living

The first link, according to the American Heart Association, is to recognize there's a problem, and call 911. Next, begin doing CPR, employ the use of a defibrillator and get the victim into the hands of capable medical professionals like the paramedics.

"Research has shown time and time again that you win or lose in a cardiac arrest on the scene," says Dr. Kellermann. "If you don't get [the victim] started before you start transport, the likelihood they'll survive to leave the hospital is less than one-half of 1 percent."

And statistics also show that if the chain of survival is initiated within 4 minutes, the chances of survival can be as high as 60 percent.

The good news is, CPR is easy to learn (local classes can be found here) and the automated external defibrillator is remarkably simple to use, even without significant training. According to several device manufacturers, you simply place the pads on a victim's chest, and turn the unit on. Complex algorithms inside the unit's computer determine whether a shock from the machine will help restart a victim's heart. Once the machine determines that a shock should in fact be delivered, it tells the user to clear their hands from the patient's body, and press the "shock" button.

It's far less complicated than your average VCR, and almost impossible to screw up.

It's for these reasons, and the relatively low cost of a defibrillator that Gary Terry continues his crusade.

"I think this is part of the plan, and I think he wants me to keep telling people what a great piece of equipment the AED is."

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And Terry says he won't stop until the defibrillator is as ubiquitous in public places as a sprinkler system.

"I'm gonna try to put AEDs in every building and in every house, and then I'm gonna hang them on trees."

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