When a heart stops beating it is a matter of minutes between life and death. Limited access to a defibrillator makes the chance of survival ever slimmer.

For many worldwide, fire trucks and ambulances are unable to make it to the scene fast enough. On average, only 10 per cent of those who suffer cardiac arrest, outside of hospital, survive. The percentage is even smaller for those in remote areas.

Marsha Hawthorne, mother of two, waited 32 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. Her husband, Curtis, went into cardiac one night after putting their two children to bed.

“When I was on the phone with 911, all I could think was, ‘Every second, I’m losing him.’ Every split second I was losing him if I didn’t get them here,” Marsha said.

“It was devastating because I was trying to save his life because I promised I’d save his life. And also to save my kids lives because it would destroy them.”

She continued to perform CPR on her husband however by the time the ambulance arrived at their home, about 40km from the the closest town, it was already too late.

Marsha shared her experience saying “It is the hardest thing that anybody can go through being a widow at 32. You’re supposed to raise your family together with the one person you married. I didn’t get to do that. So, we lost an amazing man, an amazing father.”

The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada estimates that about 40,000 Canadians suffer cardiac arrest each year.

Ambulance response times average between 5 to 10 minutes in cities and more than 20 minutes in rural communities. This generally means they end up arriving too late. For every minute that the heart has stopped beating the chance of survival drops 7-10 per cent, according to The Heart and Stroke Foundation.

When the heart stops beating, the chance of survival drops seven to 10 per cent for every minute a defibrillator doesn’t deliver a lifesaving electrical shock to restart the heart, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

University of Toronto computer science engineer Timothy Chan thinks that drone technology might help a greater proportion of them survive.

Brian Leahey, deputy chief of the County of Renfrew Paramedic Service, shows off a drone carrying a defibrillator during a demonstration in Carp, Ont., west of Ottawa this week.
Source: (http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/using-drones-for-defibrillator-1.3848349)

Through the use of computer models, Chan determined that strategically placed drones carrying defibrillators could, in some cases, cut response times in half and beat ambulances to the scene.

He looked at the impact of a network of 81 drone bases across 8 municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area. According to the mathematical algorithm used, he determined it would cut the time it takes for medical attention to be delivered by more than half in 90 per cent of cardiac arrests.

Average response times would drop from 19 minutes to 9 minutes in rural areas. Urban areas would see response times drop from just more than 10 minutes to less than four.

“I think that is an amazing idea,” Marsha said. “I think that drone idea will save a lot of people’s lives. I applaud them for finding ways to help people. I never want anybody to go through [what I did].”

If drones could deliver defibrillators faster than ambulances, “thousands of lives could be saved,” said Michael Nolan, director of the paramedic service for Renfrew County, near Ottawa.

“We’ve proven these concepts. Now, we need to integrate them within the regulatory framework,” he said.

Nolan envisions a system where pilots sit beside despatchers and fly the drones remotely. Once the drone arrives at the location, the 911 dispatcher would guide the caller through the steps on delivering a shock until the paramedics arrive.

Many dispatchers are already accustomed to guiding people through emergency childbirth and CPR so integrating this method into the 911 system should be fairly easy.

Although this idea might sound futuristic, many drone experts claim the technology is already available. While tens of millions of dollars have been spent distributing thousands of defibrillators in public spaces, only 20 per cent of cardiac arrests occur in public.

For everyone else however, these defibrillator-carrying drones might soon become the difference between life and death.