The First Successful Defibrillation and the Origins of CPR

The surgery to repair a chest deformity on fourteen-year-old Dick Heyard was going well. It was 1947 in Cleveland, Ohio, when the gangly teenager—exceptionally tall at over six feet—began having breathing problems because of his worsening funnel chest. His front torso was so caved in that his lungs barely had a third of the normal space to expand. The surgeon, an accomplished pioneer in cardiovascular surgery, was about to complete the two-hour operation when Herb suddenly went into cardiac arrest. Dr. Claude Beck knew it was a dire situation. He had been in this situation before, and the chances for reviving Dick were bleak. As a young physician-in-training in the 1920s, he had assisted in an operation and was stunned by what the surgeons did when the patient went into cardiac arrest. The doctors called the fire department to resuscitate the patient with a breathing device used to save mining victims. Their patient died on the table. Beck realized they ought to be better prepared.

Decades later, Beck was indeed better prepared. Following the work of Carl J. Wiggers, a cardiovascular physiologist who did early work on cardiac defibrillation, Beck had devised a prototype of his own. It was a wooden box with two tethered paddles that looked like spatulas, a switch, a knob to control voltage, and an index card with seven short lines of instructions.

For more than an hour, the medical team tried to revive the teen as his horrified mother wept in the waiting lounge, praying for a miracle. This wasn’t the first use of the rudimentary defibrillator and it had yet to be successful. Fortunately, on that day, the team’s tireless efforts—performing direct cardiac compressions, defibrillation, injecting medications, and supplying oxygen to his lungs—saved young Herb.

CPR as we know it now had not been developed. And there were certainly no AEDs which today are so ubiquitous in public spaces that you can’t turn a corner in an airport without seeing one. The drive for public education on resuscitation following a sudden cardiac arrest in any location began in the 1950s and developed into the robust programs adopted around the globe.

In 2019, the International Liaison Committee on Resuscitation launched the “World Restart a Heart” program to increase public awareness and improve bystander-started CPR. Through social media, the project reached over 200 million people. In the same year, over 5.4 million people worldwide received CPR training. CPR training has become part of the school curriculum in many countries. Thirty-eight states have laws that require CPR training to graduate from high school.

Herb enjoyed a successful athletic career at Louisville High School in Ohio. He played basketball (no surprise). Later, Herb worked as a draftsman, married, and had a family. He loved the outdoors and spent a lot of time fishing. It was, you could say, what most would consider a normal life.


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