Tennessee schools step up practice on lifesaving equipment like the kind used to save Damar Hamlin
Tennessee is one of the few states that requires public schools to have an automated external defibrillator — better known as an AED. After one saved Damar Hamlin during an NFL game on national television, there’s new urgency to test them out.
Aside from having the equipment, a Tennessee law passed in 2019 also mandates that schools with an AED conduct a drill every year, though it’s minimally enforced. At Nashville’s Shwab Elementary, this month’s full-scale AED drill was a first.
“We are more aware and really working to ensure that everyone in the building has a greater awareness but really know how to utilize it if the need arises,” principal Cheryl Bowman says before initiating the drill over the intercom.
“The response team is needed in the hallway outside of the gym,” she announces. She asks everyone else to shelter in place. Especially with such young children in the building, they don’t want more students than necessary to see the messiness of lifesaving in action, or be in the way when paramedics arrive.
A dummy is lying facedown on the tile floor. A teacher arrives within 30 seconds and starts CPR compressions. Another teacher runs up from the office, toting the dictionary-sized machine and boots it up.
“Begin by removing all clothes from the patient,” the automated voice instructs.
This battery-powered device can shock a heart back to life, and it gives all the commands. Responders place the adhesive pads on bare skin as shown. There’s some question about whether to switch to child-size pads, which deliver a lower shock. They’re told in the rush, it doesn’t matter. Speed is what counts.
“No one should touch the patient,” the voice warns. “Shock advised.”
Teachers put their hands up and wait to be told to resume CPR. Then they continue trading off with compressions and wait on paramedics.
After just five minutes, the drill winds down.
“Good job! How do you feel?” asks Angel Carter, a nurse from Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. Carter works with the national nonprofit Project ADAM to help schools acquire discounted AEDs and train to use them.
She’s been getting 20 emails a day since Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin nearly died in the middle of an NFL field. Many are from school leaders interested in conducting a drill.
“There’s a higher level of engagement, a higher level of awareness that this is important and that this can happen anytime, to anyone, anyplace and we need to be ready,” Carter says.
She tells the teachers at Shwab they started CPR within 40 seconds and got in a first shock just after three minutes. For each minute that passes, survival rates decrease by 10%. Three to five minutes is the goal.
“Paramedics rarely can be somewhere in three to five minutes. So it’s up to us to take care of that person,” she says.
The school nurse, Samantha West, says her primary interest is demystifying the AED for teachers and making sure they know the plan.
“They think it’s a big scary machine,” she says. “But really, it tells you what to do. And you’re not ever going to hurt someone by putting an AED on them.”
If the victim who collapsed doesn’t need a shock, it doesn’t give one.
The lesson learned from this drill at Shwab is that their AED probably needs to be stored on the second floor, where most students and teachers are during the day — putting the little machine that much closer to the lives it may end up having to save.