City mulls defibrillator law for health clubs

Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006

While exercising at a Gaithersburg fitness club, Gary Fowler, 46, grabbed his chest and collapsed on the gym floor, where he died of a heart attack.

Almost a year after the November 2005 incident, city officials are proposing legislation that would require all health clubs in Gaithersburg to have an automated external defibrillator, a medical device that uses electric shocks to correct irregular heartbeats.

The technology, along with cardiopulmonary resuscitation, is the most critical step to reversing cardiac arrest, and its use saves thousands of lives each year, the American Red Cross reports.

While Montgomery County has required its health clubs to have AEDs since January 2005, Gaithersburg, a municipality, has not yet adopted the legislation for its city limits.

With Fowler’s death, and with increased uses at airports, schools, and sports stadiums across the nation, city officials say it is time.

‘‘Quite frankly, I did not realize that [the county law] didn’t apply to Gaithersburg, and I felt that was wrong,” said City Councilman Stanley J. Alster, a former Red Cross employee who suggested the legislation. ‘‘This isn’t a terribly expensive device, or, as I understand, very hard to use. And it can be very critical in saving a life.”

The bill, which goes to a City Council vote next month, would affect about seven of the 15 health clubs in the city that do not already have the technology, according to city research.

AEDs, most of which have automated, voice-activated directions that tell a person how to use it, cost about $2,300 per device, according to the Red Cross. It’s about the size of a laptop computer.

In Montgomery County, AEDs have already helped save five lives since required in health clubs, where the victims were resuscitated after collapsing on gym floors, said Mike McAdams, assistant chief of Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service.

‘‘These are incidences where the people were technically dead, and employees pushed the buttons on an AED and saved their lives,” McAdams said. ‘‘It’s quite a piece of machinery to be able to do that.”

The city’s bill, drafted directly from the county’s law, would apply to all clubs with more than three employees.

McAdams said that while the fire marshal’s office — which will also oversee the city’s regulation —tells clubs about the requirement, it is enforced largely on a complaint-driven basis. Health club employees, at least one on duty, are also required to know how to use the device.

The Bally Total Fitness in The Kentlands, where Fowler collapsed, has since installed an AED, something that was in the works before the incident, a manager at the club said.

Representatives at Bally Total Fitness corporate headquarters in New York did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Fowler’s family filed a wrongful death complaint against the company July 21 in the circuit court of Cook County, Ill., where the corporation is based.

They aren’t the only ones bemoaning health club regulations.

Yelen Surikova, 21, a club member who witnessed Fowler’s death, says she’s haunted by the incident. At night, she sometimes dreams of Fowler’s purpling face, or the black weight-lifting gloves he wore.

Since the Nov. 7 event, Surikova, a student at Marymount University in Virginia, has written to state lawmakers, asking for increased regulations across Maryland that would help avoid the situation that she witnessed last year. She’s gotten few responses.

And although she still goes to the gym, she said she is more cautious than she once was. When Fowler fell, few employees jumped to his rescue, she remembers.

‘‘You felt helpless,” Surikova said. ‘‘You expect these people to know what to do in these situations, but everyone just seemed to look at each other. ... I think a law [requiring defibrillators] would help.”