In the 1950s, if you keeled over because your heart stopped, that was generally it. But a Johns Hopkins electrical engineer thought there must be a better way. In the 1950s, William Kouwenhoven began work on the first cardiac defibrillator, which he used to shock lab dogs’ hearts back to life after they’d stopped beating. And then came the famous day in 1958 when a dog’s heart stopped–but the lifesaving defibrillator was on the wrong floor of the hospital.
Guy Knickerbocker, a grad student working in Kouwenhoven’s lab, didn’t want the dog to die just because the building’s elevators were too slow. So, as Ramsey Flynn wrote in Hopkins Medical Magazine a few years ago, he decided to try something unorthodox:
With the lab animal’s life inexorably slipping away, Knickerbocker decided to test one of his growing suspicions. In the preceding months of experiments—with the lab dogs hooked up to the monitors—Knickerbocker had noticed that the dogs’ blood pressure readings spiked when he was forcefully pressing electrodes to the animals’ chests prior to defibrillation. Could those simple elevations constitute actual blood flow to a dying animal’s brain? If so, what would happen if the scientists methodically squeezed the animal’s rib cage to mimic the effects of an actual beating heart?
A lab associate did chest compressions on the dog for 20 minutes until the defib machine showed up; the dog lived. When Knickerbocker told his supervising resident James Jude about what happened, the two men decided to try to find a similar procedure that would work on humans whose hearts had stopped. Jude, a cardiac surgeon, traveled throughout the hospital, teaching his colleagues a chest compression technique they could use if their patients went into cardiac arrest and the defib cart couldn’t get there in time. This was a much better solution than the previous one–which involved cutting the patients’ chest open and manually squeezing the heart. Thus CPR was born.
Cardiac surgeon James Jude died this week at age 87. Who knows how many lives he’s saved.
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