Saturday 3 December 2016

How phone boxes are saving lives - and where to find them

After Tom Geaney's life was saved by a defibrillator when he collapsed on a football pitch, the Leaving Cert student is backing a new initiative which sees the life-saving equipment stocked in phone boxes across his hometown of Killarney

Graham Clifford

Published 10/11/2016 | 02:30

Phone boxes in Killarney are being fitted with defibrillators. Photo credit: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Phone boxes in Killarney are being fitted with defibrillators. Photo credit: Niall Carson/PA Wire
'Lucky': Tom Geaney (18), whose life was saved by a defibrillator after he suffered a heart attack playing football, with his father Dr John Geaney. Photo: Don MacMonagle

Had Tom Geaney collapsed at home, with no one around, he wouldn't be here today to speak of his near-death experience.

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On December 30, 2014, the then 16-year-old was training the under-11 Killarney Celtic Football side when he suddenly fell to the ground.

"At first everyone thought I was messing. But quickly one of the coaches Eugene Cosgrave realised this was no act. He, and my friend Brendan Coppinger, started CPR and within a minute the lads gave me the first shock from the defibrillator," says Tom from his Kerry home.

Despite having no history of heart trouble, Tom suffered a ventricular fibrillation, or erratic heart rate, which led to a cardiac arrest.

'Lucky': Tom Geaney (18), whose life was saved by a defibrillator after he suffered a heart attack playing football, with his father Dr John Geaney. Photo: Don MacMonagle
'Lucky': Tom Geaney (18), whose life was saved by a defibrillator after he suffered a heart attack playing football, with his father Dr John Geaney. Photo: Don MacMonagle

His friends, some of whom had CPR training, continued to work on Tom while the ambulance and Tom's parents Fiona and John, both GPs, rushed to the scene.

Continuing compressions and giving Tom mouth-to-mouth, they somehow kept his airways open and then on the fifth shock from the defibrillator, Tom was effectively brought back from the dead.

He tells me: "Look, if there was one part of the puzzle that was missing I wouldn't be here today. I was technically dead for 25 minutes so that's as much of a second chance as you're going to get.

"I owe the lads at the club my life, but realise too that without the defibrillator the outcome would have been so very different," he says.

He spent 36 hours in intensive care at Cork University Hospital, and it took at least a week-and-a-half for him to come around fully.

Not surprisingly, Tom is backing the novel Heart of Killarney initiative, due to launch this week, which aims to use the old-style telephone boxes as locations in which defibrillators are held.

Damien Baker, a first responder from Killarney who is training in the UK to become a paramedic, is behind the project and told the Irish Independent why he believes the plan should be rolled out across the country.

"Historically the phone box played a huge role within each Irish community, they were the lifeline that kept families together. Now they can do that again by housing these life-saving devices and help the public recognise and remember the locations of the AEDs - commonly known simply as defibrillators," says Damien.

Over the last three years it's estimated that at least six lives have been saved by defibrillators in the Killarney area alone.

The Heart of Killarney initiative will see wooden replicas of the traditional white and green phone boxes built and include the word 'defibrillator' across the top where the word 'telefón' used to be located. The phone box will be lit up 24 hours-a-day, and the defibrillator device will be stored within an easy-to-access cabinet.

"Our hope is that other towns will roll out this plan too so that no matter what town you're driving through in the country you know exactly where the defibrillator is," explains Damien.

Just last month a young camogie player from Newcastle West in Limerick survived a heart attack due to the the defibrillator installed at the Feohanagh-Castlemahon GAA Club where she was playing.

"It's clear that every sports club should have an AED, but also every town and village. But it's crucial people know where to access them.

"The Heart of Killarney project is very clever because not only does it provide this vital information, it also acts as a visual prompt for people to go and have CPR and first aid training," says Dr John Geaney, Tom's father.

Indeed, Killarney is leading the way in providing the best of heart care of any town in the country - thanks largely to the volunteer-led Killarney Cardiac Response Unit with which Damien works.

"Between August 2015 and the same month this year we came to the aid of 270 people who got into difficulty. We answer calls where someone is suspected of having a cardiac arrest, a stroke or is choking, and we work in conjunction with the national ambulance service," explains Damien.

There are 13 public access defibrillators in the town, secured via the Michael Linehan Heartsafe group, and the visibility of each is to be enhanced in the coming weeks also.

But how easy is it to use a defibrillator if you haven't had previous training?

"It's very straight forward," explains Damien, adding "they will have voice prompts and some actual visual prompts on screen so you'll be told and shown how to use the device.

"They can be the difference between life and death so you can't afford not to use it when you think someone is in serious difficulty."

Tom Geaney, who is back in peak health but conscious not to overdo it, is in sixth year at St Brendan's College in Killarney, and has his whole life ahead of him.

Not a day goes by that he, and his family, don't count their blessings.

"I know how fortunate I was to have been in a place where a defibrillator was available and surrounded by people who had undertaken CPR training. I'd urge people to take a short course because you too could save a life someday," he says.

The first Heart of Killarney phone box will be unveiled on Main Street in the town today with more to follow in the months ahead.

Irish Independent

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