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The Daily Tar Heel

Man’s life saved by defibrillator vest

Vernon Byrd, 76, was treated for heart failure by Dr. F. Roosevelt Gilliam, a doctor at UNC Hospitals and an electrophysiologist with more than 30 years of experience. Gilliam outfitted Byrd with the LifeVest one week before the end of his post-surgery 90-day waiting period.

The decision saved Byrd’s life.

“We put the LifeVest on (Byrd) because we had to wait seven more days,” Gilliam said. “Had we waited (the full) 90 days for Mr. Byrd, he would have died.”

The recommended waiting time to implant an internal defibrillator is 90 days to ensure the patient will require one. While some patients are high risk for sudden cardiac problems, they do not meet the criteria for an internal monitoring device to be implanted immediately, Gilliam said.

LifeVest is prescribed for a wide variety of situations, including after a heart attack, bypass surgery or heart failure.

“The LifeVest is worn outside the body rather than implanted in the chest. It requires no bystander intervention,” a UNC Hospitals press release said. “It continuously monitors the patient’s heart, and if an irregular rhythm is detected, the device delivers a treatment shock to restore normal heart rhythm.”

It appeared to doctors Byrd could make it through the final seven days of the waiting period without any issues. But Gilliam said he suggested Byrd wear the LifeVest for the remaining week, opting for extra proactive protection.

“It was on a Wednesday — I was sitting up in the kitchen,” Byrd said. “I was sitting there opening the mail and reading the mail, and the next thing I knew, the paramedics were getting me off the floor.”

For Byrd, the LifeVest became a real lifesaver. As his wife called 911, the device detected Byrd’s life-threatening heart rhythm and administered a shock to return his heart to regular pace.

Gilliam said the preventative benefits of the LifeVest outweigh any minor inconveniences a patient might experience from wearing an external medical device.

“Think of it the same way you would have car insurance,” he said. “There will be a time that you will be glad you had insurance. You may never use it, but that doesn’t mean that you’re any less likely to have an accident.”

Gilliam said Byrd’s case serves as a reminder to the medical community about the life-saving power of proactive treatments.

While Byrd does not remember going into cardiac arrest, blacking out or falling to the floor, he does know how important the vest was.

“The LifeVest shocked me and probably started my heart before the paramedics got there,” Byrd said. “It saved my life. If I hadn’t had it on, I wouldn’t be here today.”

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