Editor's note: University Heart and Vascular Institute was misidentified in an earlier edition.
The warnings echoed throughout the house last May as Monetta Murphy sat alone at her computer.
The 46-year-old Augusta woman was unconscious, and her heart was racing at more than 350 beats per minute.
She was dying.
“Weeeoooo, weeeoooo. Potential shock coming,” the alarm sounded. “Weeeoooo, weeeoooo. Bystanders, stand back.”
After 60 seconds of no response, the defibrillator vest sent 150 joules up Murphy’s back, returning her heart to a normal rhythm and rescuing her from a sudden cardiac arrest.
“It saved my life,” Murphy said. “I thank God every day – because without that device, I wouldn’t be here.”
The ZOLL LifeVest, the first defibrillator of its kind, can detect an abnormal heartbeat and deliver a shock all on its own.
Nearly 50 residents in the Augusta area and 100,000 people worldwide depend on the LifeVest; its use has more than tripled over the past two years, according to company reports.
Murphy got her vest in March after visiting the emergency room at Trinity Hospital because she had trouble breathing.
She knew she suffered from congestive heart failure, but what the attack revealed was that her heart was struggling to support her body’s daily blood flow, said Dr. Bimal Shah, Murphy’s cardiologist at University Heart and Vascular Institute.
The percentage of blood leaving the heart each time it contracts is normally between 50 and 65 percent for a healthy person. Shah said Murphy’s percentage was 10 percent.
The LifeVest is designed for people at 35 percent or less because those are most at risk of sudden cardiac arrest, which Shah said is the leading cause of death in the U.S., claiming about 300,000 lives each year.
New guidelines require doctors to wait between 30 and 90 days before implanting a defibrillator so they can see whether heart function improves. Shah said the first six months after recognizing heart damage are the riskiest for patients, though.
That’s why the LifeVest can be so important, especially for Murphy, who was uninsured.
At a fraction of the $15,000 it takes to install a permanent defibrillator, Shah said the device is providing the health care industry – and the 25 percent of its patients who are uninsured – new security.
The monthly rental fee of a LifeVest is $3,300. but representatives said the cost varies depending on insurance providers. The device is covered by most health plans in the United States.
“We have all the studies and medical advances that show the damaging effects of a sudden cardiac arrest, but we cannot predict the future. We do not know when a heart attack will strike,” Shah said. “We have to protect our patients while we determine if they need a more permanent solution to improve their quality of life. This device helps us do that.”
Patients wear the 1-pound vest under their clothes at all times, except when bathing.
Murphy received her lifesaving shock 2½ months after being fitted for the vest. A blue “conduction gel” deployed throughout the garment to protect her from energy burns.
Murphy regained consciousness shortly afterward but has no recollection of the jolt – only that she “felt good” before it was delivered and that at first it seemed as if someone had “turned on a light switch in her head.”
A friend came to visit that day and took Monetta to the hospital, where she received an implantable defibrillator for long-term protection.
Statistics show only 2 percent of LifeVest users have been shocked because of the device detecting an unusual heart rhythm. The device, which can send up to five jolts per incident, has a 98 percent success rate on the first shock. and 25 percent of the patients who use it see their conditions improve.
Today, Murphy’s heart is functioning at 50 percent, she can breathe better and feels confident in performing everyday tasks.
“My quality of life has greatly improved,” she said.
Murphy said she is looking forward to spending more time with her family – especially her daughter and son, who live nearby.
“I appreciate what you and your hardworking staff did for me,” Murphy said to Shah on Tuesday. “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for your office.”